Monday, 31 October 2011

Andras Schiff on Chopin: legacy, character, and life.

Chopin Portrait by Maria Wodzińska 1836
In 1999, pianist Andras Schiff collaborated with Mischa Scorer,
Chopin with Andras Schiff 1999 production: Classical Tv Entire Video [high quality] : or on Youtube:  Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6. It's not the first time the two had collaborated, previously in 1997 they produced the Wanderer for BBC Omnibus about the life of Franz Schubert. Below is a summary of the ideas Schiff presents about Chopin, his life, composition characteristics,  musical influences, and legacy.

Characterising Chopin's Music
Chopin grew up in the Polish countryside, and the folk music such as mazurkas influenced his composition, it's considered by Schiff as the most Polish utterances (characteristic). It was his favourite genre of music, and kept his connection, adds Schiff to his country through polonaises and mazurkas.

Asked how he would describe his music, it always contains an element a Polish word 'zal' which means it contains an element of the polish word: sadness, nostalgia, sorrow,  regret, melancholia, up to a degree of fury and anger. Schiff says it is with his music he could open up and pour out his soul.

Chopin's musical upbringing and education
Born in 1810, Chopin grew up in Warsaw, Poland at the time when was under Russian rule.
Chopin's both parents were musical. Chopin's father, a teacher, played the flute and violin, his mother sang
and played the piano. Chopin picked up a lot from this experience, by listening and singing along.
It is interesteresting to note, adds Schiff that, Chopin never really had piano lessons. [Although, wikipedia indicates Zywny was chopin's first piano teacher] His first teacher, Czech Wojciech Zywny, a violinist and composer, taught Chopin love and respect of the music of Bach and Mozart, whom he regarded as having the best taste. Chopin's 24 preludes and fugues, in fact are directly inspired from Bach's - which are regarded as essential technique, which the impressario Hans Von Bulow called the "Old Testament of the Piano"

Enrolled at the, Warsaw Conservatory, studying under Jozef Elsner celebrated composer of operas, so he had a great formal training of counterpoint, harmony and composition, but never of piano playing, so Schiff wonders how he became one of the greatest composers of the piano, which he marvels as close to a 'miracle'.

By age 18,19 Chopin was firmly established in the musical society of Poland, he had written his both two Piano Concertos, and established as a national celebrity. He had even performed for the Tsar of Russia. It was recognised he needed to seek wider opportunities within Europe so he had to 'cut the umbilical cord' of his fatherland. In, november 1830, age 20, he left Warsaw for Vienna, a very important and vital step for Chopin. He never returned to Poland. On Chopin's wish, after he died,  his heart was taken back to his native Poland.

Paris & the soirees
September 1831 was when Chopin arrived in Paris, Schiff notes that this was a great time, with a new bourgeoisie class emerging, with a love of literature, architecture and the arts, and a good family would own a piano. So Chopin provided  piano lessons to these families and  attended these families' frequent soirees (small intimate circles of friends) improvising and playing till 5 or 6 in the morning.  Attendees could immerse themselves in Chopin's music forgetting all their troubles and miseries. Chopin disliked performing for large audiences, but had to in order to further his reputation. His concerts at the Paris Conservatoire, became legendary events.

Capturing Revolutionary Spirit
Europe was in turmoil politically and economically, following the Napoleonic wars at this time. On the way to Paris, he heard that the latest Polish uprising against Russian occupation had been crushed, which Chopin reflects in his Revolutionary Etude in C# minor, written at this time, which Schiff believes is the most tragic and dramatic in Chopin's music. In his diary, he writes of his despair fearing that his friends and family are raped and executed.

Chopin's pianistic innovations

After Chopin you couldn't write piano music the same way again, he has revolutionised and changed the sound and concept and approach to the piano.He has innovated piano technique, such as,  in fingering, using the thumb on the black keys, which was previously forbidden. Chopin's fingering allows more of a liberty of playing on the keyboard. Schiff displaying a plastercast of Chopin's left hand, describing it as elegant and aristocratic. Chopin had an enormous stretch in his hands and great suppleness. Chopin was the first to say the hand has a natural position on the keyboard, each finger has a distinct character and personality, and therefore should not be similar to each other. Chopin recognised that that 4th finger is a weak one (he called his 3rd finger a long nose and the 4th a disobedient one). So Chopin wrote to the requirements of the hand, which Schiff demonstrates with the Etude in Ab. Chopin's idea of virtuosity, the cultivation of the beauty of sound. Schumann and Mendelssohn revered Chopin's music, however Chopin was not as recipricol in his admiration, not even opening Schumann's Kreisleriana, which was dedicated to him for months.

Chopin's legacy 
Chopin was one of the greatest composers ever,on the highest level as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. He has been portrayed as a wild flamboyant romantic, physically weak and fragile, dying of consumption; a very sentimental image; [however] there is no element of sentimentality in his music.
One of the great Chopin interpreters and womaniser adds Schiff, Artur Rubinstein said that Chopin's music was the greatest seducer.

Further Reading

Monday, 24 October 2011

Lefties: Poet, Pianist & Nobel Prize Winner: Tomas Tranströmer & Concert Pianist Leon Fleisher - Left-Handed Piano Playing and Repertoire

The first left handed piano was made in 1998, this is a mirror image or reverse of a normal piano - but with the bass up on the right and the highest notes on the far left. This assumes you can play with both hands, but what happens with you lose complete control of your right hand altogether. Can you still play? let's look at these inspiring stories from a nobel prize winner and some notable concert pianistss.

Tomas Tranströmer at the piano
Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011. Tomas is also a keen pianist, however, a stroke has meant that he can only play with his left hand. He still performs in recitals, in some cases, his poetry is read while he plays.

Interview with Tomas Tranströmer 

Paul Wittgenstein - Left Handed Pianist
Leon Fleisher lost use of his right hand fingers and thumb after a gardening accident which almost ended his concert career. However, he was inspired to continue on thinking of Austrian Concert Pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was blown off during world war I. Wittgenstein commissioned compositions for the left hand from distinguished composers, Richard Strauss, Korngold, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel and Britten. So now, there's established repertoire for the left hand. Fleisher cites there must be over 1,000 compositions in existence for the left hand alone, including a Brahms arrangement for left hand of Bach's Chaconne for solo violin written for Clara Schumann when she injured her right hand.

Probably one of the most well known is Ravel's Concerto for the Left-Hand.
Ravel's Concerto for the Left - Hand performed by Leon Fleisher

James Rhodes, plays Etude Pour La Main Gauche "Etude for the Left Hand" Op. 36 by Felix Blumenfeld

Further reading (left handed pianists and repertoire)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Musical Monarchs: Queen Victoria, Felix Mendelssohn and King Henry VIII

By George!- Mozart, Handel, and JC Bach
The British Royal family has a history with music, and some of the greatest composers. Handel for instance, composed for King George I. Mozart, age 8,  performed for King George III and Queen Charlotte in the newly constructed Buckingham Palace in 1764. Queen Charlotte's music-master Johann Christian Bach, JS Bach's son, gave Mozart the ultimate sight reading test of the most difficult works of JS Bach, Handel and Alder, which Mozart performed with ease, amazing his distinguished audience. Mozart also accompanied Queen Charlotte, who sang an aria. The Mozarts (Leopold and Wolfgang) later dedicated six sonatas, the Opus 3 Sonatas to Queen Charlotte.

 Some of the Kings and Queens were excellent musicians as well as composers. King Henry VIII - King and Composer Notable royal musician tudor King Henry VIII, who composed the song - "Pasttime with Good Company"

Song With Words, but not by Mendelssohn
Queen Victoria loved singing and played the piano as well, she commissioned in 1856, an Erard Piano, the same piano brand from France that Chopin played. She also had many Bechstein grand pianos, including a gilded one at Buckingham Palace. Her favourite composer was Felix Mendelssohn, and especially loved "his" songs.

Felix Mendelssohn first met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1842.
Prince Albert and Queen Victoria meeting Mendelssohn
(srce: Mendelssohn Project)

Felix Mendelssohn Age 20, 1829

To honour Mendelssohn's visit,  Queen Victoria sang her favourite Mendelssohn song 'Italien' or 'Italy' but it turned out to be written, Felix admitted by his other talented sibling, Fanny Mendelssohn. In those days, women weren't allowed to pursue careers as composers, so Felix honoured her by publishing the composition under his name.

 Japanese duo Hiro and Akiko perform Fanny Hensel - Mendelssohn's Italien, a favourite of Queen Victoria

Felix Mendelssohn also performed his famous piano pieces "Songs Without Words" for the royal couple. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband was a talented organist and was thrilled to hear Felix Mendelssohn play the organ at Buckingham Palace. Mendelssohn, later dedicated his Scottish Symphony to Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria said of Mendelssohn on news of his death, he regarded him "the greatest musical genius since Mozart."

Further Reading

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Amazing pianists - austistic blind savant Derek Paravicini - musical genius!

Source: wikipedia
Derek Paravicini is blind, has autism. He has the skills classified as a musical savant, which means he can play any piece back perfectly he has ever heard (as most savants can). This reminds me of Mozart's superb memory when he notated the Gregorio Allegri's Miserere from the Vatican's Sistine Chapel music after just one hearing. He exceeds the skills of most musical savants, because not only can he play back any piece, but he can also play the song in another particular style (reggae, jazz) or particular pianist (George Shearing, etc.) He played on the BBC radio show "In Tune" he performed Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks in the style of Tango.Watch the following videos to see Derek Paravicini's remarkable talent in action.

Derek was featured in the 2010 Stan Lee's Superhumans in a jazz challenge showdown, with 95% accuracy! And then performs "Yes we have no Bananas" in the style of Scott Joplin in the key of Bb on the fly! See the video and be amazed.

Here's a trailer of Derek Paravicini highlighting his previous performance for London's Southbank

Derek Paravicini on US documentary 60" Minutes. In this documentary he can change any tune into the style of jazz pianists Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson.

Excerpt from Nova - Musical Minds (Oliver Sach's documentary)

Excerpt from The Musical Genius - see what happens in Derek's mind when he listens to emotional content in music

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Prince William and Prince Harry play the piano as toddlers!

The Daily Mail published an article showing video footage of Prince William and Harry playing the piano as children for a photoshoot. Here's the Youtube footage

It's great the young princes are exploring the sound world of the piano. No doubt, had they persisted in their interest, they would have had piano lessons.
Earlier in March 2011, before Prince William's Royal wedding, the piano spotlight was on Kate Middleton, who took piano lessons, reaching grade 3, when she was 8 years old in Bucklebury Berkshire, UK.

Kate Middleton's piano teacher David Nicholls composed a "A Song for Kate (and William)" in honour of their wedding. 

Monday, 3 October 2011

10 reasons to choose a Digital or Acoustic Piano - a guide to selecting

An acoustic piano is basically a traditional piano made out of wood, steel strings, with a wooden soundboard. It requires tuning of a minimum twice a year. Digital pianos as the name suggest are electronic pianos with touch response. A digital piano can be either a hybrid - combination of acoustic and digital, which are usually at the higher end range.

Roland Fp-7f Digital Piano, one of the state of the art digital pianos

Characteristics of Digital Pianos
  1. Digital pianos don't require tuning - tuning in the UK (London) can cost up to £55 ($85 usd) a piano.
  2. Depending on the model, can be very portable (especially the stage or performance models) and can be moved to different rooms, upstairs and downstairs of the house with ease. An acoustic piano would be very heavy indeed and would require a professional piano mover to do so to move up and down floors. 
  3. Are regulated evenly - so the touch response is even throughout the entire piano guaranteeing a consistent even touch. You can even vary the touch responsiveness of the keys too.
  4. The digital piano can be sampled on a more expensive and superior grand acoustic piano, so in effect you are gaining the recreated sound of a much more expensive piano at a cheaper price. 
  5. Can be used with headphones, so perfect for flats or apartments with thin walls.
  6. Additional sounds - you could have anything from a vibraphone, harpsichord or strings, and sound effects.
  7. Recording ability - play back your playing with a recording feature (not available on all models) 
  8. Midi - (not available on all models) capture your playing for computer studio recording and mixing 
  9. Some models have built-in metronomes and rhythm drum accompaniments (which is great for jazz and pop playing)
  10. Affordable with a range of prices to suit every budget.

Murray McLachlan, Chair of the European Piano Teachers Association, demonstrates the versatility the Yamaha Avant Grand N1 Digital Piano

Characteristics of Acoustic Pianos
  1. Harmonics - basically the strings of a piano will vibrate sympathetically with each other, the whole piano through it's wood will resonate, which in turn with the proper technique can produce a Singing quality.
  2. Double escapement - means you can play rapidly repeating notes, some digital pianos have started to introduce this, such as the Roland range.
  3. More nuance - to test this, hold down a key very gently to produce a small sound, the mid range digital pianos will have this feature.
  4. An acoustic piano is the minimum requirement to practice for serious concert performing, and a must if you are in the higher grades of piano 6-8 (ABRSM)
  5. Most piano exams are held on acoustic pianos, therefore, you'd have a distinct advantage in controlling the dynamics.
  6. They require tuning up to twice a year, which adds to the yearly cost.  Tuning in the UK (London) can cost up to £55 ($85 usd) a piano, so that's up to £110 ($160) a year in tuning possibly.
  7. Are not so portable, due to the weight of the steel strings and metal frame, you'll need a specialist mover to move an upright piano up a flight of steps.
  8. Performance of the piano is affected by  and can be damaged by atmospheric conditions - such as central heating (remember heat expands the components) or dampness (if stored in a garage - a no no - which can cause the soundboard to shrink)
  9. If buying used and privately, you'll need a piano technician to inspect the piano to make sure you're not getting a  lemon!
  10. Vary tremendously from one instrument to another in terms of the tone, touch (evenness) the pedaling (how far and how rigid you have to depress to get sustain)
How to Choose the Perfect (acoustic) Piano for you and your family (ABC 4 - Utah)

Acoustic Piano: The story of Estonia Pianos - hand crafted pianos from Estonia - virtuoso pianist Marc Andre Hamelin owns one!

Further Reading