This atmospheric piece for solo piano, whose Afrikaans subtitle ‘Wind oor die Branders’ translates as Wind over the Waves, is by Richard Pantcheff  (b.1959). It comes from ‘Nocturnus’, a suite of six pieces written for different instruments; the final work in the suite is 4th December 1976, written in memory of Benjamin Britten on the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Pantcheff was mentored in composition by Benjamin Britten in the last years of Britten’s life, and his music displays a distinct affinity with Britten’s soundworld, as well as that of earlier English composers including Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi and Elizabeth Lutyens.

A prolific composer of choral, organ, chamber and instrumental works, Richard Pantcheff was trained in choral music and composition from an early age, initially as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral, and studied music at Christ Church, Oxford, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier. His music has been widely performed and praised for its originality and technical brilliance, combined with intellectual and emotional depth.

I discovered this piece through ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, a recent recording by British pianist, and friend of mine, Duncan Honeybourne. Duncan is a keen advocate of English music and a champion of lesser-known repertoire, and his recording on which ‘Nocturnus V’ appears (together with Pantcheff’s substantial Piano Sonata, of which he is dedicatee) contains no less than eight world premiere recordings.

The piece is minimalist in style. Its title ‘Nocturnus’ obviously suggests a Nocturne or night piece, and although this work makes stylistic reference to Chopin’s Nocturnes in its flowing accompaniment (almost continuous semiquavers to suggest both waves and wind), it is perhaps closer to Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ (which also appears on ‘De Profundis Clamavi’) and ‘Night’ from Holiday Diary in atmosphere, harmonic language and some of its textures. But while the middle section of Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ is unsettled, full of curious nocturnal twitterings and scurrying, Pantcheff exchanges the fluid semiquavers for a rising chordal figure in triplets which climaxes in fortississimo (fff) chords high up in the piano’s register. The effect is hymn-like and joyful. The music then subsides and pauses, before the semiquaver ‘waves’ return, now in the bass, with soft, piquant chords in the treble.

Although not particularly difficult (I would suggest this piece is around Grade 5-6 standard), the challenge for the player comes in retaining evenness in the semiquaver figures and sustaining long notes in the other register. Sparing use of the pedal will avoid muddying the sound in these sections, while the middle section requires greater projection and brightness of sound. It’s a satisfying piece to play as it offers the player plenty of scope for expression and “sound painting” to portray the music’s inspiration. 


‘Nocturnus V’ by Richard Pantcheff, played by Duncan Honeybourne

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Repertoire in Focus is a new, occasional series on repertoire – and not just repertoire for the piano. The articles will take a single piece or suite of pieces and offer an overview of the music, some analysis, and commentary on practising/performance, together with reasons why this music is special or meaningful for the player and why they have selected it. For teachers, it may also be an opportunity to highlight some of the challenges and pleasures of teaching specific pieces.

Guest posts are invited, from both professional and amateur musicians. For a sample, please see this article by French Horn player Ben Goldscheider.

If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch via the Contact page.


This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation


Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough

– Jeremy Denk, pianist


Our relationship with our repertoire is personal and often long-standing. Connections with certain pieces and composers may be forged in our early days of learning our instrument, which remain with us throughout our musical lives. Many of us can clearly remember some of the earliest pieces we learnt as children, and returning to repertoire learnt in childhood and during student years can bring an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable rush of memories. Opening the score of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I saw my teacher’s markings, her explanation of the structure of a fugue, and for a moment I was transported back nearly 40 years to her living room and the big black Steinway grand piano on which she taught me.

Sometimes these repertoire relationships forged during early study can be detrimental to our learning as mature players. Bad habits from childhood and student days are deeply ingrained, and all too easily recalled, and thus very hard to shift later on. This is interesting in itself as it demonstrates how carefully (or not) one has learnt the music previously, and sometimes the only way to step aside from these habits is to buy a new score and start the music afresh, as if learning it for the very first time.

Jeremy Denk’s comment on the Goldberg Variations is interesting and will resonate with many musicians, I’m sure. We all have pieces which have a particular hold over us, which fascinate and compel us to revisit them over and over again. Yet their technical and musical complexities make the learning and practicing process difficult and sometimes less than rewarding. Some repertoire, however beautiful, satisfying or intriguing, is simply a slog, and the more progress one makes, the more “just out of reach” it seems.

Other works, in comparison, feel relatively easy, the music flows in practice and performance, gives satisfaction to player and audience, and enters into one’s personal catalogue of “favourites”.

However, “easy” can be a myth, because everything, even the simplest little prelude by Bach, can be taken up a level each time we revisit the music. This setting aside of and returning to repertoire also affects our relationship with it, and we may observe how that relationship changes over time and with the benefit of artistic maturity. I have gone back to previously-learnt works and wondered what I found so difficult before. The passing of years, and accumulated experience and wisdom make the process of reviving repertoire stimulating and enjoyable. We are reminded of what attracted us to the music in the first place, while also continually finding new aspects to it. This curiosity also helps to keep alive our relationship with the repertoire.

Then there are pieces which we may never play, but, rather like the books you haven’t read, and may never read, remain special. Just knowing the score is there, on the bookshelf, can foster a particular relationship with that music (I often buy scores of music I know I will never play simply for the pleasure of reading the music or admiring the organisation of it on the page), and maybe one day you will open it, set it on the music stand, and start the process of learning it….

 

 

A recent conversation with a pianist friend of mine (who, incidentally, is probably the best advocate I know for amateur pianism, such is her devotion to the piano and its repertoire), during which my friend described a festival adjudicator who implied that she should not be playing works like a Chopin Ballade, reminded me of an attitude which exists, and persists, amongst some professional musicians (and indeed a few amateurs too) and teachers that certain repertoire is for professional or advanced pianists only. This is of course rubbish: no repertoire should be considered “off limits” or the exclusive preserve of the professional. The music was written to be played, whether in the privacy of one’s home or to a full house at Carnegie Hall

Prior to the nineteenth century, most music was written for and performed in the court or the church but there was also instructional music (for example by JS and CPE Bach) to help the keyboard player improve their understanding of technique etc (later taken up in the nineteenth century by Chopin, for example, in his Études). J S Bach’s Clavier Übung (literally ‘Keyboard Practice’) includes the six keyboard Partitas, the Italian Concerto and Overture in the French Style, and the Goldberg Variations – all wonderful works which regularly appear in concerts and are enjoyed by pianists the world over. All these works were written to be played at home as part of one’s keyboard study, and I cannot imagine Bach would consider his splendid music to be “off limits” to amateur players – nor Chopin either!

By the nineteenth century, the piano had improved significantly and by the mid-nineteenth century advanced manufacturing techniques meant pianos could be produced more quickly and cheaply. The instrument became an important member of the household and composers responded to its popularity by writing smaller scale works, “albumblatt”, miniatures and duets, specifically aimed at the “at home” or amateur player. Many of these works are now staples of concert programmes.

As pianists we are terribly spoilt for choice. We have a vast repertoire to explore, and today composers continue to add to that repertoire, which means we also have brand new music to explore and play. And in my experience, composers are pleased if you actively seek out their music to play (and preferably purchase it too). OK, so it’s not as prestigious as having it premiered by a leading artist, but that the music is being played and perhaps shared with others via piano clubs, self-organised recitals etc means the music is getting out there.

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re “not worthy” of this fantastic repertoire, that you shouldn’t attempt a Chopin Ballade, a late Beethoven or Schubert Sonata, Liszt’s Dante Sonata or Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

The music is there to be played – just go and bloody well play it!

As friends and followers of this blog probably know by now, I moved to Dorset at the end of May after 40 years living near or in London. We spent six weeks in temporary accommodation with my mother-in-law and our cat Monty, with just some basic furniture and effects to enable us to function and continue to work day to day (my husband runs his own business, working from home). Meanwhile, the bulk of our furniture and belongings went into storage. Three days after we moved into our new home on the island of Portland, near Weymouth, a large Pickfords van arrived to deliver our effects and left us a few hours later surrounded by packing boxes. The efficiency of Pickfords’ packing service ensured that every box was clearly marked, though some were rather ambiguous, such as “shoes and books” – which turned out to contain all the files associated with my London piano teaching practice. As I gradually unpacked, drawing our possessions out of their wrapping paper, a certain item – a book or a vase – would elicit a response or a Proustian rush of memory. Finding photos of my son as a baby and little boy were particularly poignant and special (he is now 20, living in his own flat and working as a chef at one of London’s top hotels).

It also occurred to me, as I worked my way through the boxes, that being reunited with these items, accumulated over a marriage of nearly 30 years and remembering how and why they came into our home and our joint lives, was like reacquainting myself with piano repertoire I had learnt previously. Just as I recalled why that mid-century white vase was special, so I also recalled what I liked about the repertoire and why I selected it in the first place. Some pieces go back a long way in my piano life – to when I was a teenager (Schubert’s D899 Impromptus, Mozart’s Fantasies), or when I was starting to play the piano seriously again as an adult (Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, Chopin’s Nocturnes). Others have more recent heritage – the music I learnt for my performance Diplomas or pieces played in concerts, which will always remain special because of their association with positive and enjoyable performances.

Returning to previously-learnt repertoire can be extremely satisfying – like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Some pieces reveal their subtleties and qualities more slowly than others and benefit from a cycle of work, rest, work, rest. A prime example for me is Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K511, a profoundly emotional and complex work which I revisited four times and will work on again this autumn, such is the work’s appeal and breadth. Picking up a piece again after a long absence often offers new insights into that work, revealing details one may not have spotted the first time round, while time away from the music – perhaps spent listening or reading about it – helps one crystallise thoughts and form new ideas to put into practice. It can be surprisingly easy to bring previously-learnt work back into one’s fingers, and this ease is a good sign – that one learnt the work deeply in the first place.

At the time of writing, my grand piano is still in storage with a friend in London. In the meantime, I have been enjoying listening to music I’ve previously learnt while also considering new repertoire for performance later this year.

Oh, and I’ve also been enjoying the fantastic scenery on Portland…..

This excellent initiative was started by Australian piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne. The purpose was to promote and implement the concept of students learning a huge quantity of piano pieces in one year to allow students to learn, experience and perform far more pieces than our exam-focussed culture tends to allow. Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.

Another similar initiative is the Go-Play Project, in which US pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski set herself the task of learning (or relearning) a piece of piano music each week over the course of a year (she recorded the pieces and uploaded them to SoundCloud). Like many piano teachers, Catherine felt she was not spending enough time at the piano for herself amidst all the teaching and admin that goes with running a piano teaching studio. I followed Cathy’s project with interest and told myself that one day I would do something similar.

A new year, and a number of pianist friends and colleagues have embarked on their own 40-Piece Challenge. Despite, or because of, the fact that I have set myself a vast learning challenge in Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D959 in A), I decided it was time to try my own 40-Piece Challenge. My motives for doing so are slightly different from the original purpose of the project:

What kind of repertoire?

The Schubert sonata is a big work in four movements, which takes c.40 minutes to play, and the learning process is by necessity long and detailed. It would be foolish to add other very advanced works to my musical diet, so the premise is to learn shorter and “easier” works for the challenge. And the pieces selected do not necessarily have to be “new”: as part of the exercise, I am revisiting some pieces I learnt a few years ago. There is much to be gained from reviving previous repertoire, as new insights and ideas about the music are revealed.

To guard against boredom and retain variety in my practising

I would be crazy to devote all my practise time to the Schubert alone. Adding a variety of shorter works is a supplement to my main learning and a way of ensuring I retain interest and excitement in the piano.

To extend my repertoire

When one is working for exams or diplomas, there is a terrible tendency to focus only on the set pieces. This is not healthy, as too much focus on a narrow repertoire can lead to familiar pieces growing stale. One often finds that even the most disparate repertoire will inform other works. I also wanted to have a “bank” of pieces I could call on for the occasional concerts I give.

Each piece will be recorded and uploaded to my Soundcloud

Recording is an excellent way of evaluating one’s playing and an opportunity to listen in a different way, allowing us to make judgements about which areas need revision or improvement. By insisting on recording each piece, I am forcing myself to prepare each work carefully. This in itself is a useful exercise: just because the repertoire is “easier”, it should still be prepared to a high (concert-ready) level.

Update 1 – September 2015

With 27 pieces recorded and uploaded to Soundcloud, I am nearly three-quarters of the way through the project. There was a slight hiatus during the summer break when I was devoting much of my practise time to the Schubert Sonata in order to meet a personal deadline to have the entire sonata in the fingers by the end of June. Also, the piano was in need of a tune and I didn’t want to make any further recordings until it had been tuned.

Learning outcomes so far:

  • The project has encouraged me to learn “fast and smart”
  • I have become slightly less hyper-critical than usual about my playing, resulting in, I think, fresher and more imaginative recordings.
  • It has given me a focus in that each week I consider which works should be prepared for the challenge and add them to my practising diet.
  • It has made my work on the Schubert more enjoyable because there is variety in my practising regime

Update 2 – December 2015

I completed the project in early December – ahead of my deadline – and 40 pieces are now uploaded to my SoundCloud. I enjoyed the project very much, in particular the discipline of learning shorter pieces quickly and carefully. I am now considering a new 40 Piece Challenge for 2016 during which I will learn and record 40 new pieces of music (rather than a mixture of new and revived works).

The pieces:

For those considering a similar challenge, I offer some repertoire suggestions (intermediate to advanced level):

J S Bach – Kleine Preludes, Two- and Three-Part Inventions

Chopin – Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Nocturnes

Beethoven – Bagatelles

Schubert – Moments Musicaux, Ländler, Waltzes

Heller – Etudes

Rachmaninoff – Preludes, Moments Musicaux, 6 Morceaux Op 11, Etudes-Tableaux

Scriabin – Preludes, Etudes and other shorter piano works

Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives

Bartok – Mikrokosmos (later volumes)

Ligeti – Musica Ricercata

Debussy – Preludes, Children’s Corner

Scarlatti – Sonatas

Single movements from sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.