Monday, 25 April 2011

Piano's Funniest Moments 2: James Rhodes and the X-Factor (Blumenfeld's Etude for the Left Hand)

I couldn't believe this when I saw it, James Rhodes is truly breaking boundaries and bringing classical music to a new audience. Perhaps he'll get X-Factor fans interested in playing the piano, does that work vice versa? Classical pianists interested in the X-Factor...perhaps or perhaps not, but anyway here is the video and it's great entertainment. The piece features Blumenfeld's Etude for the Left Hand, opus 36 (sheet music link).

Here's a more 'conventional' performance, take us away James!

Further Information

Monday, 18 April 2011

Chopin Piano Competition Winners - Marizio Pollini Interview

Marizio Pollini
This 2009  Marizio Pollini tv interview for RTHK - Hong Kong, sets the scene of a great pianist: in 1960 Pollini won first prize as the youngest participant, age 18, in the International Chopin Piano Competition - Warsaw. Despite this accolade, he doesn't consider himself a specialist on Chopin and is equally acclaimed for his performances of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Praised for his performances of Chopin and Beethoven because of his fidelity to the text; and absence of sentimentality.

Pollini toured Hong Kong during hte time of the interview with his very own familiar 9' concert grand piano and tuner to be sure that you have the best instrumental conditions for the concert. Generally, Pollini performs about 40 concerts a year.

Pollini on Chopin - has liked Chopin's works since his youth and his repertoire does extend to other composersas well. Because of the outcome of the competition, therefore, he does devote "a lot of his time and love" to the composer's repertoire. He describes Chopin's music as magic and mysterious with an extremely seductive surface. Pollini contends Chopin's works go deeper thatn being a romantic sentimental composer;  he is in fact, difficult to understand - and you need to love him otherwise you won't be able to play him perfectly. When he compares his earlier recordings of Chopin, he says he now plays Chopin now more in a free way (perhaps because there's less pressure now as an established artist?).

Champion of Modern music
Audiences prefer more well known pre 20th Century classical composers as modern music is not so well known.. Pollini is an exponent of performing modern music - 20th century music is not well known; a pity to Pollini as it's full of genius. 

Monday, 11 April 2011

Piano Legends: Krystian Zimmerman BBC Radio interview summary

Introduction Krystian Zimmermann won the Chopin International Competition in 1975, one of the youngest winners of all time - he was in his teens. In general, he very few public recitals and interviews, which makes this BBC interview given in 2008 particularly valuable. The interview was conducted in Basel, Switzerland by Tom Stoppard for BBC Radio 3's Music Matter's programme.

Part 1. - Inside knowledge
Krystian Zimmerman describes how he acquired such an inside knowledge of the piano. Before his career as a concert pianist, he earned extra money as a piano technician wiring strings. During the communist regime in Poland, spare parts, such as those for a Steinway piano were very expensive, and thus he  had to improvise and create spare parts. His developed knowledge of the workings of the piano, its acoustics, and the physics of piano manufacture, and the effect these have on its sound characteristics no doubt influence his recording process. He likens the piano to a human being - knows when the instrument is sick and how to fix it. In fact, he has 6 different pianos - which he uses to play different composers works on (i.e. Ravel, Brahms, etc). And he spends a fortune on transporting his own piano for his recitals, in fact,his custom made piano was seized by customs at JFK airport and destroyed as it was deemed a security threat containing a glue which is used in terrorist bombs.  

What Beethoven could really hear! If Beethoven couldn't hear particular frequencies, in his 9th symphony why, did he compose using such high notes? Krystian says it's by listening through bone transfer: 
vibrations were picked up through wooden sticks that Beethoven would lean against the soundboard and bite against them; with this bone transmision he was hearing different things. [There are even audio bone headphones that are inspired by Beethoven's hearing apparatus.]

Recording vs live Storytelling 

 Like many great artists and composers, Krystian is a perfectionist and  not happy with his own recordings (particularly solo), approves them under stress of the recording company, etc. He believes if you allow a record to be released, you should be convinced that this is a unique artistic output which no one else has done before and that it is enriching for the market, [and above all,] it should be convincing.

At the time of the interview in 2008, his last solo recording was 1990. He dislikes the digital recording process as the sound quality is too perfect, it so clearly transmits the sounds that you don't hear the music anymore. What does he mean? There's a general hum [of the audience ] you have in the concert hall that you can't recreate in a recording. Subsequently, he
prefers his live piano concerto recordings because of the live audience, as there's an ambience (sound); (which is) not a dead perfect silence in a studio. 
He states music is not sound [alone just in a recording], [it is]  organised emotions in time, [a] story you tell using sound. 

Part 2 To listen to the big picture, get driving
Krystian records every concert he plays. It's a great feedback mechanism to listen to yourself to find out
what you did, if you'd do it differently for the next performance. He prefers to listen to music in the car; particularly generally to the flow of the music. In fact,  he drives around the house (likes to do it late at night and when there's less traffic) so that the the conscious brain is occupied with driving and the road whereas then music goes right where it needs to go. The car noise covers the (musical) details so he can actually hear the bigger picture or the story. 

Continual Pianistic development: On analysis and music as artistic recreation
Krystian is inspiring because he still has a love and curiousity for music, and rediscovers links and influences amongst compositions and composers in many ways. For enjoyment, he listens and plays a lot of pieces he will never play in a concert. He analyses these pieces further and in an example would understand the influences of Rossini's  influence on French music on Alkan and Satie.

Concert artistry - audience collaboration
The concert according to Zimmerman is an interpretation is made together with the audience. He has
precise ideas of what he wants to do, with 3 sets of fingering a piece which he varies according to the
acoustics, and the power he uses in various concert halls. The final thing or product of which art is made in the concert hall.

Part 3 - Globalisation Stifens musical creativity! 

Globalisation of interpretation = Standardisation lessens creativity and originality
Beethoven, Opus 110, scared of this piece due to the expectations of the previous recordings in the listening psyche, and has a tremendous respect of this piece. Globalisation means everything sounds the same as (the speed of transfer of culture promotes a homogenity) and he sites the difference before mass communications in the French school; or even amongst Russian composers from Scriabin, Rachmaninov.

Part 4: The art of "no technique"

"You have fingers you put them on a keyboard - there is no technique" he once told a student. By this he means there is no technique because you play by giving meaning to every note. Each musical note is like a word in a phrase, which must make sense. Krystian Zimmermann  names several influences which include his personal collaborations with pianists Arrau, Richter, Rubinstein.

In order to teach - you need to be able to articulate the problem by verbalising a solution
Krystian's political views meant that he stopped giving concerts in the USA, he explained that he
needs to have a positive attitude towards the people he would play for. 

Let's Bow Out of this blog with a performance from Maestro Zimmerman. With over 2 million hits
on youtube - here's Chopin's Ballade #1 performed in 1987 and directed by Emmy award
winning Humphrey Burton, CBE.

Other pages that refer to these inteviews

Thursday, 7 April 2011

How to play Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca "Turkish March" - Piano Performance and Technique

Mozart is great for technique my previous teachers have told me. Why? Because getting good articulation in your playing requires a consistent touch and solid technique. Some of the scale runs are particularly challenging to keep the evenness whilst remaining minimal hand tension and to have a pearly lightness but yet voiced.  The last movement from the A Major K331 Piano Sonata is commonly known as Rondo alla Turca or "Turkish March". I've started relearning this piece. I played it for competitions when I was 13. I'm going to reflect on what I've learned in my lessons from this piece and share it with you! First let's look at it's influences. 
Ottoman Female musicians ( wikipedia)

Turkish Influence:  This movement is inspired by the Turkish Janissary Bands, which upon further research in Wikipedia reveal that these are Ottomon Empire Military Bands - hence the use of the term 'March'. Listen to some of the Janissary music below to get you into the flavour of the turkish inspiration.

 So we can definitely add the military character to the March section of the Rondo - the B section. This movement is so contrasting to the calm theme and variations of the first movement. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, Turkish music was en vogue in Vienna, so much so that the fortepianos had an additional pedal which activated a drum and cymbal to give the rhythmic Turkish drumming effect. The Finchcock's keyboard museum in Kent, UK has such a piano - a Johann Fritz fortepiano dating from c1815.

Now let's hear a Swedish pianist perform this great Austrian Composer's piece with Turkish influence (how cosmopolitan!). This is one of my favourite Youtube recordings of Rondo Alla Turca performed by pianist Lars Roos, performed in Sweden. Lars also features the piece amongst his miniatures in his CD recording.

General tips for playing the Rondo Alla Turca
  • Rondo form - the piece is a rondo, which means 'round' so therefore has a structure, a normal Rondo is ABACA (each letter represents a section), but in this case it's ABCBAB and so, you come round once again to ' section A' twice. If you know the structure you won't leave out a repeating section when you don't need to! I'm reminded of some Scott Joplin pieces with their repeated sections, where we must creatively think of colour changes to not make the repeats boring or played exactly the same way! 
  • C Section Scale runs - to avoid rushing, use your left hand as a guide to set the tempo, let the left hand lead the right hand. 
  • Articulation - watch out for the left hand articulation in the beginning, depending on edition (I'm using the Associated Board Royal Schools of Music) the second bar is slurred and the 3-4 bars aren't! 
  • Focused sound - don't loose the bridge in your hand (collapsing). One of my previous teachers likened the action of a precision machine - such as a typewriter imprinting notes into the keyboard with precision, accuracy and equal spacing. 
  • Play in to the key - one of my first mistakes, I was trying to be light so much that I wasn't producing a full bodied tone,  you can have a strong articulated tone yet relaxed! So play into the keybed while maintaining as relaxed hands and arms as you can.
  • Harmonic progression - in the C section, there are some harmonic changes, or colour changes, F#m and C#m chords - bring out these colours. Be aware of them at least - do they have a more slightly darker contrast before the next A major scale run comes up?
  • Tempo - it is marked Allegretto, so check these on your metronome. A lot of people will play the piece Allegretto Vivace (which is faster) 
Whatever you do, don't play like a robot, like the TEOTRONICO 010 

Further Resources Here are some excellent further resources that go into more detail on the Rondo Alla Turca.

    Wednesday, 6 April 2011

    Pianist Paul Lewis interviewed on the Beethoven Piano Concertos Cycle and his love for the 4th Concerto

    Alfred Brendel protege UK pianist Paul Lewis talks on the Guardian newspaper Youtube website about the Beethoven Piano Concertos, with samples of playing from the 4th and 5th concertos. Paul performed the cycle for the BBC Proms in 2010.

    Paul Lewis loves the 4th Piano concerto because it's the most unusual; most ellusive, and challenging to play also (collaboratively - as you have to see eye-to-eye); something slightly unobtainable about it that draws him to it.

    Paul Lewis talks with Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek about the Beethoven Piano Concertos cycle and further about the challenges of the 4th concerto - fragility of performing with an orchestra, minute changes of pulse, balance, and tempo. Paul also talks about the cadenzas within the concertos and what they reveal about the composer. The 5th concerto, surprisingly has no cadenza for instance! (perhaps because the piano has such a prominent role - i.e. the opening)

    Friday, 1 April 2011

    Top Chinese Piano Masterpieces

    I'm looking to start studying some Chinese piano pieces, I believe it'll benefit  my understanding of sound colour - by virtue of a different tonality and music system. When I was a teenager, in the 1990s I was impressed by the virtuosity of some of the folk songs which were transcribed by piano, my previous teacher Koo Kwok Kuen had recorded Chinese Folk Piano music, so now I'm rediscovering them.  Here are some great examples. I hope you  enjoy them. As you can see, they are all inspired by nature!  
    彩雲追月 Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon (1935) by Chinese composer (
    Ren Guang, born in 1900) 
    young Nigel Lim performs: 

    Here's another fabulous performance of  彩雲追月 Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon by Aristo Sham.

    Sa Chen, a prize winner in the Van Cliburn Competition and International Chopin competition  performs Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake composed by Lu Wen-cheng in the 1930s. The piece is inspired by the composer's visit to the scenic West Lake, Hangzhou.

    Lang Lang performs Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake

    Alaina Zhang performs Liu Yang He (by composer Tang Bi-guang)

    Embroidering a Portrait in Gold 绣金匾, "Xiu Jin Bian" performed by pianist Yin Chengzong, 2nd prize winner in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition. Alternative title is "Embroidering the Tablet With Golden Threads"

    Last but not least, the Yellow River Piano Concerto performed by the  the Symphony Orchestra of the Central Philharmonic Society 中央乐团交响乐队  and pianist Yin Chengzong 殷承宗 (who arranged the piece from a work by Xian Hinghai)  This 1st Movement is characterised as
    Prelude: "The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen" describes the momentum of the terrifying waves of the Yellow River and uses the rapid chromaticcrescendo and long rolls of the timpani and cymbals typical of Eight model plays model operas. (source: wikipedia)