It was perhaps inevitable that pianist and writer Susan Tomes would turn her attention eventually to the extraordinarily broad repertoire of the piano – her instrument, and mine, and that of countless others, both professional and amateur players. While her previous books have been concerned with the myriad aspects of being a pianist – from performing, recording and teaching, concert preparation, etiquette and attire, and audiences to the daily exigencies of practising and rehearsing – her latest volume, The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is concerned with repertoire and how the piano’s development and capabilities have influenced how composers write for it. 

The book was inspired by Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, and takes a similar approach, using specific pieces to illustrate the piano’s history and illuminate its development, from the moment in the early 18th century when it began to supplant the harpsichord as the keyboard instrument du jour to the modern piano as we know it today. 

This new instrument offered composers a greater varieties of colours, effects and timbres, and so their music reflected the piano’s capabilities and range, its potential for songful lyricism or an orchestral richness of sound, amply demonstrated in the piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for example, the song accompaniments of Schubert, or Chopin’s Nocturnes with their bel canto melodies.

The book begins in “pre-history”, as it were, with music written for the harpsichord, the most famous of which is Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a pinnacle of the repertoire and a work which continues to fascinate performers, audiences and commentators alike. Bach’s Italian Concerto also features in this section, together with works by Domenico Scarlatti and CPE Bach – all works which can be played and enjoyed equally on harpsichord or piano.

We then move from the harpsichord to the fortepiano and thence to the piano itself, in its earliest iteration, a much smaller instrument physically, but already one with far greater range and tonal projection than the harpsichord or fortepiano, as is clear from the music of Haydn and Mozart. One of the pieces explored in this chapter is Haydn’s Variations in f minor, Un piccolo divertimento, Hob. XVII: 6, a work of profound expression, which foreshadows Schubert, and pianistic breadth. Unsurprisingly, Haydn’s great E-flat major Sonata, Hob. XVI:52 is also covered in detail in this chapter, a work which utilises the capabilities of the piano to their fullest extent in a work of great character, texture and variety. 

But as these early chapters reveal, this book is not simply a chronology of the piano, not by any means; but rather a detailed exploration of some of the greatest music composed for the instrument as well as lesser-known gems, written from the authoritative standpoint of someone who knows both instrument and repertoire intimately. And it comes right up to date with a chapter focussing on music by living composer Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Judith Weir and Thomas Adès

Susan Tomes writes with a lucid eloquence founded on knowledge, experience and, above all,  affection for the piano, which shines through every paragraph. She not only offers the reader important analysis, contextual details and performance notes for each work, but also demonstrates a deep understanding of what it feels like to actually play this music, the sensation of the notes “under the hands”, how it sparks the imagination and provokes emotions, and the experience of learning and shaping it to bring it to life in concert – fascinating insights which take the reader “beyond the notes”, as it were. Thus, the book acts as both a historical survey and a primer for those seeking more detailed information about specific works, with guidance on performance practice and interpretation, drawn from Tomes’s own experience as a soloist, chamber musician and teacher. 

The range of pieces explored in the book reflects the vast breadth of the piano’s repertoire, and Tomes is the perfect guide through this almost overwhelming embarrassment of musical riches. 

Nor does she confine herself only to the solo repertoire. Concerti and chamber music also feature heavily, from, for example, Schubert’s much-loved ‘Trout’ Quintet to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, to demonstrate the piano’s importance in these genres and how it interacts with and complements other instruments. Jazz is also covered, while the final chapter explores where the piano and its repertoire might be heading, and how we as listeners, and players, might open our ears and minds to a different range of music, presented in less traditional performance settings. 

This comprehensive, informative and highly readable celebration of the piano and its literature is a must-read for pianophiles and music lovers. With its wealth of analysis and contextual information it is also a significant resource for those who teach and play the piano, a book to keep close by the instrument to refer to, dip into, and cherish.


The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is published by Yale University Press

Piano Day was founded in 2015 by composer and pianist Nils Frahm, and a group of like-minded others, and it celebrates all things piano – the instrument and those who play it, its extensive repertoire, and other piano-related projects. It takes places each year on 29th March, the 88th day of the year, chosen because the piano has 88 keys.

“Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.” – Nils Frahm

In a year when pianos in concert halls have largely fallen silent, Piano Day seems even more significant to me. I have to admit a certain estrangement from my own piano – I have not felt much motivation to play over the past year, despite having more time to devote to an instrument which I love, but in spite of this, I have made some new musical discoveries which I would like to share here.

Woven Silver from Seven Traceries – William Grant Still

A chance hearing of this piece on BBC Radio 3 one morning led me to listen to the entire suite and order the sheet music direct from William Grant Still’s estate in the US.

Chaconne – Jean-Henri d’Anglebert

Another piece which I discovered via BBC Radio 3, listening late one evening to the Night Tracks programme which is broadcast after 11pm

Every Morning, Birds from The Book of Leaves – Rachel Grimes

I discovered Rachel Grimes’ piano music when I was invited to suggest music for the new London College of Music piano syllabus. This atmospheric miniature is from her Book of Leaves album.

Blue Air from Colour Suite – Madeleine Dring

In 2020 I was asked to contribute teaching and performance notes for Trinity College of London’s new piano syllabus, and this was one the pieces for which I wrote notes. I like its lazy swinging rhythms and piquant, jazz harmonies.

Quiet Rhythms: Prologue & Action No. 9 – William Susman

This piece appeared in one of those “if you liked that, you’ll like this” playlists which the Spotify algorithm creates based on one’s listening.

Some Other Time – by Leonard Bernstein, played by Bill Evans

This is very similar to Evans’ Peace Piece, which I play quite frequently, and it shares its tranquillity and ostinato bass.

Allegro Moderato from Gargoyles – Lowell Liebermann

Another chance discovery, the sheet music for this piece by American composer and pianist Lowell Liebermann was included in an issue of International Piano magazine. It’s been on my piano for awhile, but I haven’t yet got round to learning it properly, beyond a brief sight-read. (Read my review of Lowell Lierbermann’s Personal Demons here)

Film en miniature, H. 148: III. Berceuse – Martinu

Track 14 https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=190295242428

I don’t know very much of Martinu’s piano music and I discovered this piece through French pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s wonderful ‘Good Night!’ album (one of my favourite recordings of 2020 – review here).

Elf Dance – Moondog

American composer Moondog (Louis Thomas Hardin, May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999) was blind from the age of 16 and wrote most of his music in Braille. I like the Baroque/folksy flavours of this miniature, which appears on Vanessa Wagner’s disc Inland.

Listening back through these selections, I notice that most have a rather meditative or ambient quality, perhaps reflecting my taste for quieter, more reflective music during the past year.

This quote from a Meet the Artist interview with pianist Antoine Préat perfectly expresses my relationship with many composers and their music.

When I returned to playing the piano seriously in my later 30s, after a break of some 20 years, there were pieces which I felt I “should” be playing but which never felt comfortable to me. This feeling grew when I co-founded a piano meetup group where members played all sorts of repertoire. I envied those who seemed so at home with the music of Chopin or Ravel, two composers whose piano music I adore, but which does not necessarily love me back.

Of course, we should never feel obligated to play certain pieces or composers out of a sense of duty; the “tyranny of the shoulds” is often inculcated in our childhood music lessons, reinforced in music college, and – for the professional musician, further emphasised by teachers, peers, agents and critics – or for the amateur, at piano clubs and on courses. Students and those at the beginning of their career probably feel the pressure of this sense of obligation most acutely, and it takes confidence to stand firm against the tide of opinion that says one should be playing certain Beethoven sonatas, etudes by Chopin and Liszt, or the concertos of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Grieg in order to be recognised and endorsed by those who may help further one’s professional career and reputation. 

We’re very lucky as pianists; we have a vast repertoire to choose from and this means there is music within it to suit our varied, wide-ranging tastes. It is interesting to note that some of the greatest pianists have chosen to focus on a fairly narrow corner of the repertoire – for example, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff or Maria Joao Pires. It really isn’t necessary to have an affinity with or be able to play everything, though of course there are some pianists who seem perfectly at ease with a very broad sweep of repertoire, namely Maurizio Pollini or Marc-André Hamelin. Stephen Hough is quite open about his “uneasiness” about playing the music of J S Bach and I think it is a mark of a pianist’s honesty to admit that certain repertoire or composers do not suit them. 

Our affection for the music we choose to play is, I believe, one of the greatest assets in the learning process. It is what helps to keep us focussed and ensures we will return to the music day in day out to practice and refine it. If you don’t love the music you’re playing, it’s unlikely it will love you back, and the practice of practising will feel arduous and challenging. I recall feeling like this quite a lot of the time when I was having piano lessons as a child, where my first teacher would always select the music I was to learn, without giving me any choice (when I taught piano, I made sure my students played music they liked and enjoyed). It was only when I had passed my grade 5 piano exam, and moved to a new teacher, that I had the foundations of technical facility and the confidence to explore repertoire on my own. It was at this time that my love of Schubert’s piano music developed – and it remains amongst my most favourite music still. 

One of the great pleasures of being an amateur pianist, perhaps the greatest pleasure, is that you are not – or shouldn’t be – under any obligation to play music because someone else said you “should”! Of course sometimes a teacher will suggest repertoire which they feel may help with an aspect of technique or simply that it may appeal to your musical taste and sensibilities – and a good teacher should know and appreciate their students’ tastes. But if it doesn’t appeal, have the confidence to say “it’s not for me”. It’s also worth bearing in mind that our tastes change, and, as our technical facility improves, repertoire we previously loved but might not have been able to play, becomes more accessible.

If the music doesn’t love you back sufficiently for you to play it yourself, simply enjoy hearing others play it – on disc, on the radio, in concerts and via streaming services.

034571282602‘Vida Breve’ (Short Life) – Stephen Hough, piano (Hyperion CDA68260)

It seems fitting that Stephen Hough’s new album ‘Vida Breve’, featuring music on the theme of death, should be released while we are still in the thrall of the coronavirus. But this album is not a response to the pandemic and was in fact conceived and recorded long before any of us had heard of coronavirus or COVID-19.

Yet its theme is highly relevant to our Corona times when death dominates the news, from the daily tally of COVID deaths and grim predictions from scientific and medical experts. Despite this, as Stephen Hough says in the CD’s liner notes, we are still reluctant to talk about death, a reluctance which has increased over the past 50-odd years during which medical science has made it possible for people survive better and for longer and has led to a greater disassociation from and hyper-sensitivity to discussions about death.

For artists, writers and composers death has always been a central preoccupation, resulting in some of the most extraordinary, exultant and emotionally profound expression in painting, literature and music – amply demonstrated in the works on Hough’s new album. In the nineteenth century people were far closer to death than we are today, and for Chopin (whose short life was dogged by ill-health), Liszt and Busoni, composers whose music is included on this CD, death was understood and accepted as part of the natural course of life.

As a Catholic, I suspect Stephen Hough has a fairly robust attitude towards death, perhaps more closely aligned to that of the composers featured on his new disc (and remember Liszt was a devout Catholic). Hough’s faith teaches us not to fear death but to accept it as the only certainty in life, and his own piano sonata ‘Vida Breve’, the work which lends its title to the disc, explores the brevity of life, a reminder that our allocated time is short. An abstract, introspective work constructed of five tiny motivic cells, which interact contrapuntally and include a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet, ‘Vida Breve’ lasts a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil.

Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita opens this recording, in Busoni’s glorious, romantic transcription for solo piano. This epic cathedral of sound is an awe-inspiring, emphatic opener (Hough played it at his Wigmore Hall livestream concert in June 2020), and here Hough gives it an authoritative, multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. It’s opening is dark and sombre, yet the processional nature of this piece, with its sense of building, dying back, then increasing again, brings a remarkably uplifting atmosphere to this music, and of course its final cadence, a Picardy Third, ensures that it closes with a clear sense of positivity.

After the towering majesty of the Chaconne, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is fleet and turbulent, its anxious intensity tempered when Hough lingers over the more lyrical Nocturne-like passages in the opening movement and the Scherzo, or when he allows the essential nobility of the music to shine through over disruptive bass motifs. Like the Chaconne, the famous Marche funèbre is magisterial rather than simply funereal, while the tender, dreamy middle section lends an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme return.

In addition to the thematic associations between the pieces, there are musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne are reiterated in the Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominates, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure is later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles, to which Hough brings an ominous darkness, its slow-march meter suggesting the dead weight of a bier on the shoulders who carry it, before a more reflective, wistful section. The other piece by Liszt, the Bagatelle Sans Tonalité, is a musical gargoyle with its wayward harmonic language and grimacing, dancing rhythms.

The remaining works on the disc are encores of a sort – a reminder that this final recital is not quite over….. Busoni’s Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen uses familiar melodies and motifs from Bizet’s opera and transforms them into a witty concert piece, to which Hough brings a warm romanticism. His own transcription of Arirang, a traditional Korean folksong, is gentle and contemplative, its lyrical melody singing out over a flowing accompaniment. It leads naturally into Gounod’s recasting of Bach’s Prelude in C into Ave Maria (also transcribed by Hough), a popular work at funerals, perhaps because it is both perfect music for the transit to the afterlife and for reflections on life and the inevitability of its end. Death, now where is thy sting?

This album is masterly is its programming; stimulating and provocative, it’s a superb recital disc and, being Hough, the music is thoughtfully chosen and impeccably played.

Highly recommended

FW


‘Vida Breve’ is released by Hyperion on 29 January 2021. 

This review first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist site

A film by Antonio Iturrioz

Leopold Godowksy (1870-1938) is regarded as one of the giants of the keyboard, renowned for his formidable technique and ingenious transcriptions of works by other composers, transforming already challenging pieces, such as Chopin’s Études, into works of extraordinary difficulty and invention, which few pianists are prepared to tackle. In addition to transcriptions, Godowsky was also a significant and prolific composer in his own right. He was the last in a lineage of great post-romantic composers that included Rachmaninoff and Busoni, and made a major contribution to the development of piano music. A ‘pianist for pianists’, the critic James Huneker referred to him as the “Buddha of the Piano”; popular during his lifetime, Godowsky and his music is hardly known or performed today.

The Cuban-American pianist Antonio Iturrioz is one of the few musicians to rise to the challenge of Godowsky’s music and, following an injury to his right hand when he was a young man, he spent several years studying Godowsky’s complete left hand transcriptions and original compositions. His 2010 film The Buddha of the Piano – Leopold Godowsky is the result of meticulous research into the composer’s life and music, and is the first and only film on Leopold Godowsky. Illustrated with archive material including photographs, scores and piano rolls, this engaging film summarizes Godowsky’s achievements as a pianist and composer, and reveals his busy, peripatetic life, and his thoughts on music and life, shining an important light on, arguably, the greatest pianist of all time. But perhaps what is most satisfying is the music which accompanies the film. Performed by Antonio Iturrioz himself, he demonstrates not only superlative technical fluency, endlessly rising to the vertiginous challenges of this phenomenal music, but also shows a deep appreciation of Godowsky’s unique artistry. Mr Iturrioz’s film, together with his performances, are a wonderful endorsement of Leopold Godowsky’s remarkable talent and his significant contribution to pianism and piano repertoire.

Antonio Iturrioz playing the restored 1923 Steinway Duo-Art Concert Grand which was used for the performances for his film

More information about Antonio Iturrioz’s film here


Concert pianist, documentarian and Steinway Artist Antonio Iturrioz, born in Cuba, came to the United States when he was 7 years old. Giving his first concert at 9, he played the Liszt First Piano Concerto for his orchestral debut at 15. His teachers have included his father, Pablo Iturrioz; Francisco De Hoyos, a pupil of Gyorgi Sandor; Bernardo Segall, who studied with the Liszt pupil Alexander Siloti; Aube Tzerko; and Julian White. He has taken master classes from Byron Janis, Alexis Weissenberg, Jorge Bolet, and Andre Watts.

While recuperating from an injury to his right hand, Iturrioz learned important and obscure works for the left hand, including the complete Godowsky arrangements and original compositions. This led to his first film, the unique documentary The Art of the Left Hand: A Brief History of Left Hand Piano Music, called “an important film” by Clavier magazine. His second, The Buddha of the Piano: Leopold Godowsky, the only film about Godowsky, has been shown at international piano festivals, colleges in the U.S., the Edinburgh Society of Musicians and at the American Liszt Festival in South Carolina. Highly praised by Marc-Andre Hamelin, Carlo Grante, and many others, Scotland’s greatest pianist of the second half of the Twentieth Century, Dr. Ronald Stevenson, said, “It is an important film for all pianists and pianophiles….You reveal with skill, clarity and sensitivity the intricacies of his polyphonic piano writing.” The film, translated into Italian and French, will soon be translated into Polish. Both films have been featured on national public television.

Iturrioz in 2013 gave the world premiere performance on one piano of L. M. Gottschalk’s complete two-movement symphony, La Nuit des Tropiques, (the first American symphony) having transcribed for the first time the second movement, “Fiesta Criolla,” for one piano.

The Steinway & Sons label released in fall 2018 the world premiere CD of this historic work. Andre Watts has called Gottschalk and Cuba an “extraordinary album of music!”

For more information please visit:

www.gottschalkandcuba.com

www.newinternationalgodowskysociety.com

www.theartofthelefthand.com

An Introduction to the Piano – Christopher Northam

Amidst all the recordings of virtuoso repertoire comes this delightful collection aimed at amateurs and piano students from pianist Christopher Northam.

Northam takes us on a chronological journey through some 300 years of keyboard music, from Byrd to Debussy, with plenty of gems of the repertoire, as well as lesser-known works by Pachulski and Alkan.

Although described as music “for beginners”, the selection includes some challenging pieces of cGrade 6 to 8 standard, including Beethoven’s much-loved Für Elise, Field’s Nocturne in B flat and Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Admittedly, these are not necessarily “concert pieces”, but they certainly require a fair degree of technical and artistic facility.

We are so used to high-quality recordings of concert repertoire by leading, acclaimed pianists, it is refreshing to have a selection which is clearly aimed at amateur players. The actor and keen amateur pianist Alistair McGowan attempted something similar a few years ago with his Piano Album, though the music selection was almost as unimaginative as his playing, and I am not convinced by McGowan’s assertion that hearing someone like him playing this music will inspire others (I suspect most aspiring pianists find inspiration in high quality performances, whatever the difficulty of the repertoire). By contrast, Northam treats this music with all the authority, care and commitment one would afford virtuoso repertoire, and performs it as if in a concert rather than strictly pedagogical setting.

Remarkably, the recording was made over 20 years ago at St George’s Bristol, which boasts one of the finest acoustics for piano and chamber music in the UK. Northam’s sensitivity and attention to detail in this crystalline acoustic results in a recording which sounds fresh and immediate.

The amateur piano world is huge, and very supportive of professional players, from whom many amateurs not only drawn inspiration but also receive tuition, in private lessons, masterclasses and summer schools. Yet the amateur world is often barely acknowledged; this excellent contribution from Christopher Northam recognises the importance of amateur pianists while offering inspiration in repertoire which is accessible and achievable. If I have one criticism it is that there is not a single piece by a female composer included in this otherwise excellent selection, but I am told by the manager at the recording label that the music selection was based on the then ABRSM syllabus, which, at the time, included no pieces by women composers.

Recommended


 
An introduction to the Piano is available on the HOXA label distributed via Naxos. Catalogue no. HS950701
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