An intriguing envelope, postmarked from Ireland, dropped through my letterbox this morning, a welcome change from the daily deluge of Christmas mail. The A4 sheet of text, which accompanied the enclosed CD, immediately caught my attention when I saw the name Joyce Hatto, and initially I misread the text, thinking I’d been sent a recording to review by one of the artists Joyce and her husband ripped off in the course of their great classical music scam.

Pianist Archie Chen with actress Maimie McCoy who plays Joyce Hatto (right) as a young woman
Pianist Archie Chen with actress Maimie McCoy who plays Joyce Hatto (right) as a young woman

In fact, the CD, a collection of works by Chopin, performed by pianist Archie Chen, relates to the upcoming BBC biopic of Joyce Hatto, Loving Miss Hatto. Written by Victoria Wood and starring Francesca Annis and Alfred Molina, the film will be aired on Sunday 23rd December on BBC One.

Archie Chen is indeed the pianist “behind the hands” –  in that he provides the music for the film, under the direction of the musical director Niall Byrne. Chen himself is the pianist playing in the film, and he was also charged with teaching the actress Maimie McCoy, who plays Joyce as a young woman, how to play convincingly for the camera. The challenge for Chen was to learn some of the most difficult works in the repertoire in a very short space of time. As Chen himself says of working on the film: “I’m in such a privileged position to be involved in this project……I really relished the challenge of learning the most fiendishly difficult Godowsky Studies…..The hardest part was putting in the mistakes!”.

The release of the film coincides with the launch of Chen’s new CD ‘Chopin’, which features some of the composer’s best loved works, including the Ballade No. 3, the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor op. 31, and all of the Impromptus, as well as the B minor Sonata. The opening Impromptu, in A-flat major, is a joyful outpouring, Chen opting for a more relaxed tempo than some performers, with restrained rubato and a thoughtful middle section. The Ballade No. 3 is graceful and elegant, with tasteful rubato and an enjoyably lilting tempo, which calls to mind the chime of a carriage clock (perhaps on the mantelpiece at Nohant?). In the Scherzo, once again a more spacious tempo allows us to enjoy all the contrasting elements and drama of this work. Likewise in the Sonata, tempos are measured and well thought out, in particular in the final movement (marked Presto non Tanto, far too many pianists, in my opinion, take this movement at such a gallop many of the details of the music are lost). Clean and expressive playing throughout, coupled with considered tempos and spare use of rubato, make this a CD to enjoy over several listenings.

Archie Chen ‘Chopin’ is available on CD or as a download

Archie Chen’s website

An earlier article I wrote on Joyce Hatto

by Madelaine Jones

20120506-084746.jpgCall me a philistine, but I have never liked Wagner. I tried watching Tristan and Isolde on DVD and gave up – the shrill of an over-bearingly loud soprano hovering somewhere between Romanticism and atonality almost sent me into convulsive fits. The thought of sitting through the entire ‘Ring Cycle’ made me shiver with boredom. I found his style over-indulgent and lacking substance, and since I never really understood the appeal of the composer or what he was trying to achieve, I never really got to understand or enjoy the compositions – that is, until I found his piano works.

Turns out Richard Wagner’s earlier exploits into composition were not as overly expansive and luxurious harmonically as we’ve grown to expect when we hear the name. His Opus 1, it turns out, was a piano sonata, and even more surprisingly, one you could well be forgiven for mistaking at first for early Beethoven/late Haydn, despite the odd Romantic turn of phrase in places. In fact, by the very nature of the key it is written in (B flat was a particularly favourable of Beethoven’s, the key of both his ‘Grand’ Sonata, op. 22, and the famous ‘Hammerklavier’, op. 106) and some tongue-in-cheek quotes from other works (within a few bars of the second movement, note the reference to the beginning of Beethoven’s Eb major sonata, Op. 31/3) show that Wagner clearly had a far deeper respect for the Classical era than most people credit him with.

This new side to Wagner got me interested: if he was not so outlandishly Romantic and over-expressive as I had first considered him, what other gems of his piano music were out there and why hadn’t we heard of them? Next, I stumbled across the Fantasia in F sharp Minor, written in the same year (1831). The opening ringing of the chords instantly struck a resemblance to the famous Mozart Fantasy in D Minor and so I was fascinated and continued listening. The lyrical and poignant recitative passages interspersed with expressive melodies and tormented chordal cries grabbed me as something incredibly beautiful, but also well-crafted and poised. I continued looking: the delightfully cheeky Polka, so full of character given its brevity, the stately Polonaises, the sentimental Albumblatt for E.B. Kietz (interestingly subtitled a ‘Lied Ohne Worte’ – maybe his respect was abundant towards Mendelssohn as well, though the more Romantic lilt to this piece might suggest otherwise!) all struck me as wonderful music that’s been brushed under the carpet.

So why, if this music is so fantastic, do we not play it or hear it anymore? Why is this side of Wagner kept hidden? The answer to that, I would hazard a guess, is that most of these piano works were fairly early in Wagner’s output – in his 70 years of life (1813-1883), the majority of his piano works were composed in the first half, and once his success in the world of opera kicked in, he seemed less inclined to compose piano music, instead favouring more expansive mediums of composition. Since his style then blossomed into a much more experimental breed of High Romanticism, the simplicity of his earlier works became unduly neglected by listeners. Despite being less outlandish, I think the pieces themselves are absolutely charming, and deserved to be remembered, if not only for their artistic merit, but also to give us an insight into the thinking of a clearly multi-faceted composer, who is most certainly not insensitive and over-indulgent as I first thought. Now I have a far better appreciation of his genius, I might even hazard giving Tristan another go…

Links:
Sonata in Bb, Op. 1, WWV 21 (1st movement)

Fantasia in F sharp minor, WWV 22

Albumblatt to E.B. Krietz

 

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 recent recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time.

by Madelaine Jones

20120506-084746.jpgCall me a philistine, but I have never liked Wagner. I tried watching Tristan and Isolde on DVD and gave up – the shrill of an over-bearingly loud soprano hovering somewhere between Romanticism and atonality almost sent me into convulsive fits. The thought of sitting through the entire ‘Ring Cycle’ made me shiver with boredom. I found his style over-indulgent and lacking substance, and since I never really understood the appeal of the composer or what he was trying to achieve, I never really got to understand or enjoy the compositions – that is, until I found his piano works.

Turns out Richard Wagner’s earlier exploits into composition were not as overly expansive and luxurious harmonically as we’ve grown to expect when we hear the name. His Opus 1, it turns out, was a piano sonata, and even more surprisingly, one you could well be forgiven for mistaking at first for early Beethoven/late Haydn, despite the odd Romantic turn of phrase in places. In fact, by the very nature of the key it is written in (B flat was a particularly favourable of Beethoven’s, the key of both his ‘Grand’ Sonata, op. 22, and the famous ‘Hammerklavier’, op. 106) and some tongue-in-cheek quotes from other works (within a few bars of the second movement, note the reference to the beginning of Beethoven’s Eb major sonata, Op. 31/3) show that Wagner clearly had a far deeper respect for the Classical era than most people credit him with.

This new side to Wagner got me interested: if he was not so outlandishly Romantic and over-expressive as I had first considered him, what other gems of his piano music were out there and why hadn’t we heard of them? Next, I stumbled across the Fantasia in F sharp Minor, written in the same year (1831). The opening ringing of the chords instantly struck a resemblance to the famous Mozart Fantasy in D Minor and so I was fascinated and continued listening. The lyrical and poignant recitative passages interspersed with expressive melodies and tormented chordal cries grabbed me as something incredibly beautiful, but also well-crafted and poised. I continued looking: the delightfully cheeky Polka, so full of character given its brevity, the stately Polonaises, the sentimental Albumblatt for E.B. Kietz (interestingly subtitled a ‘Lied Ohne Worte’ – maybe his respect was abundant towards Mendelssohn as well, though the more Romantic lilt to this piece might suggest otherwise!) all struck me as wonderful music that’s been brushed under the carpet.

So why, if this music is so fantastic, do we not play it or hear it anymore? Why is this side of Wagner kept hidden? The answer to that, I would hazard a guess, is that most of these piano works were fairly early in Wagner’s output – in his 70 years of life (1813-1883), the majority of his piano works were composed in the first half, and once his success in the world of opera kicked in, he seemed less inclined to compose piano music, instead favouring more expansive mediums of composition. Since his style then blossomed into a much more experimental breed of High Romanticism, the simplicity of his earlier works became unduly neglected by listeners. Despite being less outlandish, I think the pieces themselves are absolutely charming, and deserved to be remembered, if not only for their artistic merit, but also to give us an insight into the thinking of a clearly multi-faceted composer, who is most certainly not insensitive and over-indulgent as I first thought. Now I have a far better appreciation of his genius, I might even hazard giving Tristan another go…

Links:
Sonata in Bb, Op. 1, WWV 21 (1st movement)

Fantasia in F sharp minor, WWV 22

Albumblatt to E.B. Krietz

 

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 recent recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time.

I stupidly left some of my precious scores at the venue where I attended a photoshoot last week. I put the scores on the windowsill of the theatre while my photographer friend and I moved the piano into position: I remember thinking, “I mustn’t forget to take those scores with me”….. I only discovered I was missing the scores when I went to practice on Saturday morning, and for a moment I suffered that awful heart-in-the-mouth feeling as I tried to recall where I might have left them. Unless I am reading a score away from the piano (usually in bed, when others might be reading a novel!), my scores live on or close to the piano. Having searched briefcase, bedroom and car to no avail, I realised I had left the music at the theatre.

I felt curiously bereft without them: the Dover edition of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage with a rather fine portrait of Liszt on the front cover, the pale mauve ABRSM edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes, which I had when I took my Grade 8 exam over thirty years ago (still with my then teacher’s annotations), the dusky blue Henle edition of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux which accompanied me to my Diploma exam…… “You must have something else you can practice,” my husband said, seeing my miserable face. “You can go back to the theatre on Monday and collect them.”

He was right, of course – and I did retrieve the scores – but without them nearby all weekend, I did feel rather unhinged. It’s not so much the books themselves, which of course can be replaced, if necessary, but all the annotations and personal scribblings on the pieces I’m working on which I missed.

A pianist friend of mine, on seeing my richly annotated score of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (heavy with my fingerings, comments to myself, and excerpts of the libretto from the song version), suggested that I rub out all but the most essential markings and “clean up that score!”. “Oh no! I can’t possibly do that!” I exclaimed in horror. For to me those markings are as familiar as old friends, and without them it’s just NOT MY SCORE!

I expect we all have our own set of personal markings and annotations: I favour rings around notes to remind me of a place where I regularly make a mistake, exclamation marks (rather like the road signs) to alert me to ‘hazards’, a cartoon pair of spectacles to remind me to look out or ‘watch it’. Then there are general notes about context, the composer, facts about the work. (In the case of the Liszt Sonetto, it was incredibly helpful in my interpretation and shaping of that work to have a translation of the libretto at crucial points in the score, as well as a copy of Petrarch’s original sonnet pinned to the inside cover.) It’s always interesting, almost voyeuristic, to see someone else’s score, for the marks within in are highly personal: someone else’s fingering and comments, which, if analysed, might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires.  Someone else’s annotations, their wisdom, the score they have lived in, and worked over many times.

My scores are now safely stowed on the lid of the piano, ready for this week’s practising. Meanwhile, over the weekend, I worked on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K.511), and made some useful inroads into Messiaen’s Prelude ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ and Rachmaninov’s wonderful transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3.

Tenor John Aler sings ‘I’ vidi in terra’ – Sonetto 156 di Petrarca (S.158/3)

A recent search thread which led someone to my blog – “classical music you should be practising” – set me thinking: what are the “must plays” of the standard repertoire, and why?

Please feel free to join the discussion and leave your comments and suggestions. I will then compile a proper blog post.

To get the conversation going, I have so far:

Bach – Partitas, WTC and Italian Concertos

Chopin – Etudes

Use the comment box to leave your suggestions, or contact me via Twitter @crosseyedpiano.

Here are the ten posts which received the most traffic on this blog in 2011. Enjoy – and Happy New Year!

Describing music – in words and sound

Guest post: FLOW – Transforming Your Practice

Desert Island Discs

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Should You be Practising Right Now?

Music Apps for iPhone and iPad

Cross-Rhythms Without Fear

Maurizio Pollini plays Beethoven’s Last Sonatas

The Top 10 Classical Music Composers

Review: Mahan Esfahani Plays the Goldberg Variations

I’d love more guests posts in 2012. If you are interested in contributing to this blog, please contact me via the comments box on this post, or Facebook or Twitter (@crosseyedpiano).

Many thanks to all my readers.