Thursday, 29 December 2011

2012 Piano Anniversaries: Debussy, Thalberg, Ravel, Gershwin, Cage, Pollini, Barenboim

Thalberg (Liszt's rival) [image: wikipedia]
It's a new year and with it, a whole range of anniversaries. In 2010 we had the 200th anniversaries of the birth of Chopin and Schumann, 2011 of Franz Liszt, and now for 2012 we mark the
  • 50th  anniversary of the death of English composer John Nicholson Ireland (13 August 1879 – 12 June 1962) 
  • 75th anniversaries of the deaths of composers George Gershwin  (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) and Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) 
  • 100th Anniversary of the birth of American John Cage  (b. 5th September 1912 –  d. 12th August 1992)
  • 150th Anniversary of French composer Claude Debussy's birth (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918)  
  • 200th anniversary of the birth of  19th Century virtuoso pianist/composer  Sigismond Thalberg,  (January 8, 1812 – April 27, 1871) once serious rival to Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886).  
Happy 70th Birthday to great Concert Pianists: 
  • Maurizio Pollini born 5th January 1942.
  • Daniel Barenboim, born 15th November 1942.
John Cage - Suite for Toy Piano performed by Steve Butters

So look out for special recitals and commemorations coming out near you in 2012.
If you want to list one below as a comment, feel free!

Monday, 19 December 2011

7 year old child prodigy passes Grade 8 Piano and Violin - Edward Tomanek - youngest to reach g8?

Grade 8 is the gold standard that most young musicians aspire to reach. Grade 8 piano pieces are the level which would include single movements from selective Beethoven Piano Sonatas (Pathetique, Moonlight).
My daughter just passed grade 2 piano with merit age 5 (nearly 6) and that was quite a feat, and we are inspired by my cousin's son, grade 8 piano in Hong Kong, age 9. So who is the youngest to reach grade 8 piano?

In nov 2010, the Daily Mail (UK) newspaper reported that Edward Tomanek, passed Grade 8 piano and violin at age 7.  Which is an astounding young age to pass the vigorous exams given by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. His parents aren't musicians and he was never pushed into music, however, Edward started playing the piano and lessons on the violin at age 3. He enjoys music and practicing, he can go at it for up to 3 hours at a time.  Previously, Edward had attained distinction for Grade 5 piano, and also for Violin Grade 8 (his main instrument) shortly before he turned 7.  Edward reached grade 8 piano also at age 7, though not distinction marking, as this would have been mentioned in the articles, a feat nonetheless! His prodigious talents earned Edward a place in the prestigious Royal College of Music junior school (a saturday school for the most talented young musicians in the UK).

Edward loves music, as he "paints pictures" with sound colour, and is fond of Chopin's emotional music. So let's see Edward play the piano. The Lark by Glinka-Balakirev performed by 8yr old Edward Tomanek (video), St Georges, Hanover Square, London 2010

8 yr old Edward Tomanek performing the Prokofiev Harp Prelude in C major Op 12 No 7 at St George's, London, 2010 (below)

Edward playing the violin (far right) performing the Vivaldi Concerto for 2 Violins in a minor, New Virtuosi Master Course, Queenswood School, UK April 2011

Well done Edward and best of luck for your musical career!

Further Reading

Monday, 12 December 2011

How to play Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988 analysis and tips by Danielle Osman

Danielle  OsmanGuest blogger Danielle Osman, once  member of the  Boston Repertory Orchestra and Harvard Musical Association Orchestra of Boston discusses Bach's Goldberg Variations, the technical and musical challenges involved and how she overcame them. 

Danielle, please tell us about the origin of the Goldberg Variations.
The “Goldberg” Variations were first published in 1742 as a keyboard practice consisting of an Aria and 30 variations by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).  Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was Bach’s student who lived with the Count Kaiserling, who was the Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony.  The Count was constantly ill suffering from insomnia and often called upon Goldberg to come and play for him “his” variations.  Thus they came to be known as the Goldberg Variations.  They start out with an Aria which is a Sarabande, and then go on to 30 variations with a similar bass line which go from being lively and crisp, to slow and sometimes very soft, sleepy pieces.  Bach originally wrote them simply for the enjoyment of clavier players.

 What attracted you to the Goldberg Variations? 
Definitely the Aria.  It’s a beautiful, sweet, dance of sorts.  Its been referred to as a sarabande in the Anna Magdalena notebook (1725). The ornaments are exquisite.  It’s filled with trills and turns which give it its body. It’s a loving piece and typical of Bach.   It’s filled with real emotion and delicacy. Had I never heard this piece in the past, I would have instantly known that it was a Bach piece.  In the middle of the Aria on the 25th bar, it gets very sad and touching.  You could almost feel Bach’s heart.  He was a greatly religious man and you can tell that this is a man who worships and loves his God.  It gets almost religious at this point.  Bach has that unique ability to make any work of his a form of worship, and being a spiritual person myself I was instantly drawn to this body of work and I decide to delve into the variations to see where he was going with it.

 What do you think Bach's message is in this piece, what is he trying to convey? 
Well, Bach initially wanted it to simply be a piano or harpsichord player’s enjoyment of music.  He didn’t compose it as an exercise or study like the Well Tempered Clavier Books I & II.  He just wanted it to be simple, fun, variations most of them being in G major but with quite ambitious trills here and there to give it that colorful effect and excitement.  Half of the variations are lively and exciting and the other half are slow and sometimes dark.

 Who are your favorite interpreters of Bach's Goldberg Variations and why? Who are of particular inspirations to you? 
The obvious answer would be Glenn Gould because of his famous 1955 recording which catapulted him into an international superstar.  Glenn Gould, to me, did the Goldberg Variations justice.  His execution of the music was just what Bach had intended out of it.  The fast lively variations, especially the 1st variation, were seamless.  He never misses a beat and all the trills are very crisp.  Those recordings were my inspiration and guide to play the Goldberg variations the way they are meant to be played.  He was simply a genius.  The ability to execute and articulate beautifully those ornaments at fast speed is almost unheard of, and no pianist that I know of has been able to do so at such a high tempo.  Therefore Glenn Gould by all accounts did the best interpretation of Bach’s work. I liked the 1955 recording that Glenn Gould did at the tender age of 23, as opposed to the 1981 recording when he was almost 50 and close to his ultimate death.

I feel that with a faster tempo and with the playing style of Glenn Gould at that age, he got it right.  Many pianists have played it over the years a lot slower and so did Glenn Gould when he was 50, and I feel that there is so much lacking.  The beauty and dramatics of the pieces disappear once you slow down the tempo as much as they did.  The power of the Goldberg variations are only felt when they are played fast, unless stated otherwise, and the ornaments are played and annunciated as Bach intended them to be.

What technical and musical challenges does the theme and variations present and how do you overcome them? 

Challenges of the Goldberg Variations
 There is some hand-crossing involved and the ornaments are not kind.  It’s a great exercise for the fingers and you would need to start out very slowly.  Some publishers issue out the works along with ornament executions and that’s a great help.  Therefore, the main challenge in this work are the ornamentation.  There are so many of them and executing them is where the fun is and where the challenges lay.  There are so many trills which I love to play.  Any music with trills is always fun but it is also very easy to get those trills wrong.  So, careful execution is key.  Take your time.  Tear the music apart.  Mark up your manuscripts, and get the fingering correct such that the movement is flawless and every note can be heard.  Annunciation, articulation, and accents here and there is what makes this body of work exquisite.

Tip: Articulation
First off, articulating every note is of utmost importance.  Some publishers of the Goldberg variations do have the original script along with the execution of the ornaments above it.  That would allow the pianist to play the notes slowly and get every note on time with the base line.  Typically, playing out the whole melody in sections until you are comfortable with that theme or variation helps the process.

Tip: Use minimal pedal
One needs to remember that this work is all baroque, so highly minimize the pedal.  Do more legatos and staccatos, as opposed to using the pedal.  I would recommend eliminating the pedal completely and that would help in the playing technique.  Let the notes speak.  It is important to allow the notes to sound off individually.

Tip: dynamics
Unfortunately Bach doesn’t really use the words pianissimo, fortissimo, mezzo piano, in this body of work, so the pianist is really left to execute as best as they can.  It’s a very colorful body of work and every individual can interpret it in the best way they can.  Albeit, there are some variations that seem to go against the grain of Baroque music.  Variation No. 25 in particular sounds very much like a Chopin Nocturne, and is therefore played very softly, dolce, and perhaps a pedal could be introduced here.

Tip: Always break them into sections.  Get comfortable with one section at a time, and then add it to another.  This work can seem overwhelming but you need to break them apart and study, and understand, and feel the music.

Tip: Practice hands separately whilst taping the rhythm
Start out with the melody hand and play all the notes very slowly until you have that section done right.  And then do the other hand, and once you are comfortable with the melody throw it together.  But practice over and over one hand at a time until you get a sense for the chord progressions, the melody, and the general theme.  Use the other hand to tap the beat.  Tapping is a great tool and helps with timing.

Additional Article Links

About Danielle Osman:  
Danielle has been a classical pianist for 20+ years.  She has performed at a few venues in the US, Australia, and the UK.  She has extensively researched composers and their works.  She is primarily passionate about baroque and romantic era composers.  She briefly was part of the Boston Repertory Orchestra and Harvard Musical Association Orchestra of Boston but realized that her true passion was in studying the works of her favorite composers and working on solo piano pieces which she continues to do today in her spare time.  She is very happy to consult and work with other musicians and is open to ideas about anything music related.  Her dream would be to work on some of Mozart’s Piano Concertos (No.21 first movement – Allegro Maestoso, in particular).  Contact Danielle Osman..

Monday, 5 December 2011

Pianist Sam Liu on Chopin Mazurka in A minor op.17 no.4

A Piano Sage blog exclusive, we interview up and coming Canadian-Taiwanese pianist Sam Liu
Sam Liu, winner of the Il Circolo Piano Transcription  Prize
on what his inspiration and tips to play and practice Chopin's Mazurka in Am, Opus 17 #4. Sam has taken masterclasses with renown Bach expert Andrea Hewitt and Liszt expert Leslie  Howard, and was 1st prize winner of the Il Circolo Piano Trancscription competition.

First let's listen to Sam Liu performing the Chopin Mazurka in A minor opus 17 no.4
 in Canada on a Bechstein Grand

What attracted you to this particular Mazurka?
 I heard this Mazurka for the first time on Horowitz' Deutsche Grammophon's (DG label) recording, what I regard as a truly transcendental performance. The sound Horowitz created, was simply surreal.  I recall fondly many evenings in Canada driving home from piano teaching, listening to this beautiful piece over and over again..

Horowitz performing Chopin's Mazurka Op.17 No.4 in Am in his home, from  "The Last Romantic" 1985

What characteristics of Chopin and the Mazurkas must you keep in mind when playing this piece?
A Mazurka is known for its "Mazurka pulse", or stressing on the second beat of the bar. Of course, this is just a rule-of-thumb, and the amount of rubato on the beat will have to be judged by the music and the taste of the performer.  In fact, the Mazurka pulse is featured throughout many of Chopin's oeuvres, and it is important to bear in mind that when a passage of Mazurka-like quality appears in any Chopin's music, e.g. theme A of the first ballad #1 in G Minor, the feeling of Mazurka pulse will have to be present, as the music suggests.  Understanding the mazurka pulse will help one to find the very essence of Chopinesque rubato.

What technical and musical challenges does this mazurka present and how do you overcome them? 

Challenge - Gracenotes As the Mazurka itself is not difficult to play, the only technical difficulty are the quick grace-notes which appears many times in different parts of the sections.  These grace notes have to be played with tremendous delicacy, with the aim that they should not at all feel difficult or even a struggle to play; or even noticed [they should not stand out too much].  To achieve this effect, one could break them into smaller sections to practice, make sure the tone and rhythm is even, and then join them together.

Mazurkas and Waltzes - Both of which Chopin wrote many, are in the same time signature 3/4 time,  can you tell us more about the differences and the requirements of the challenging (Mazurka) Pulse? In contrary, the musical difficulties are much more demanding than it looks on the page.  Waltzes in general should be play with equal rhythm between each beat of the bar, with an emphasis on the first beat.  It should be played rather flowingly, with a feeling of one beat per bar, as in contrary to the Mazurka where it swings on the second beat.  However, arguments have been made that the slow Chopin Waltzes should be generally treated as a Mazurka, with the famous recording of Cortot plays Waltz op 64 no.2 with the Mazurka pulse.  Nonethelss, the more general ones, such as op 18 and op 34 set, should be played as a normal Waltz character in my opinion.

On top of the finding and balancing the Mazurka pulse, there are several interpretative difficulties involved.  Firstly, the same phrases repeat many times, and section repeat at the end.  With all these repeats, it is crucial to play them a little bit different each time, as if you are on the journey and each time when you reached a same scene you evoke different emotion towards it.

How would you say the different rhythmic emphasis of the mazurka pulse adds to the character?
The Mazurka pulse has generally been known and studied by the learnt musicians ever since it's creation.  Just like when a trained musician during the Baroque period can immediately tell the tempo and character and recognize a French overture from the score alone, a learnt musician in the nineteenth century would automatically apply the Mazurka pulse to a Mazurka without questioning. It's part of the culture and understanding of music.  If the Mazurka pulse wasn't added to the Mazurka, then presumably it wouldn't be a Mazurka at all!  It would be just be a beatiful piece of music in 3/4.

Tip: Sustain and relate phrases
The ability to sustain a phrase is paramount for this mazurka.  If one only plays the phrase as it looks on the page, the whole Mazurka will be chopped into pieces and it will not make sense to anyone.  Playing through each phrase and making each phrase relate to each other is rather tricky and requires experience and understanding.

However, to get started to develop relating phrases to each other, a useful tip is anticipation.  After playing a phrase, a motive, or even a note, one should try to form the sound of the next note (anticipate) in the brain very vividly, from the pitch to the timbre of the sound and the dynamic of the sound.  It is just so often that people would play with "finger" [muscle memory] rather than engaging their musical mind via imagination.  A good exercise to engage the musical mind would be to play  the whole Mazurka on the piano with fingers touch the keyboard without making the sound, and imagine the sound in the brain as if it is been played.

Tip: Muscle Control
 In addition, it is very tempting to just play the Mazurka through, and enjoy the sound and melody rather shallowly.  However, to create an heart-touching sound, it not only demands a good piano, but great concentration of the mind and great muscle control, two elements I deem crucial.  As the Mazurka is so simple, it is in turn so exposed, that if the pianist's concentration falters, this will show immediately in the  playing. So, to develop muscle control, practice holding the group of the notes down i.e. the group of the grace-notes, then play each finger individually, play the notes of the finger that's holding and the adjacent notes, thus to create maximum independence of the fingers

How does this mazurka compare with his other mazurkas?
Chopin was still relative young at the time of composing the mazurka, both in terms of age and his musicality development.  Only a genius could create such beauty and simplicity as such a young age (Chopin composed this Mazurka around 1833, age 23).  Although this Mazurka does not have some of the sophistication he created in his later Mazurkas, such as opus 59 and opus 63, its pure melancholy and lyricism  is completely sublime.  The late mazurkas are much more sophisticated musically and demand a likewise more  artistic demands in interpretation and delivery.

Who are your favourite interpreters of Chopin's mazurkas and why? Who are of particular inspirations to you and why? 
Although I am drifting away from Horowittz's unique performance now, I still regard his interpretation one of the best I have ever heard.  However, Paderewski's rendition of the piece evoke much more sincerity, and I believe it might be closer to what Chopin would have intended.

Paderewski performing the Mazurka in 1912

  I also particularly liked the recording of Richter, which is so heart-touching, if not heart-acheing, and Richter's very own way. Richter performing the Mazurka in 1950:

Sam, any further words of advice you'd like to give?
To conclude, this is a tremendously beautiful piece, yet extremely difficult to execute.  It is enjoyed much by amateurs, because it is technically not too difficult to get around to the notes to get started. But, to polish it to great height can take a life-time for a professional pianist including hours of practice and experimenting with expressive possibilities.  Well, this is what a great piece of music, because of which, has it's demands and challenges, we are very lucky that these pieces have survived for us to play today. I wish you the greatest luck and best wishes for your endeavors.

About Sam Liu: Sam has won various awards such as the first prize of "Il Circolo" Competition at Italian Cultural Centre, Piano Transcription Competition, and had given recitals throughout UK and Canada including Yamaha Artist Service Europe at Chappell, London. Sam has also participated in masterclasses given by pianists Angela Hewitt, Leslie Howard, Joseph Banowetz, and Anton Kuerti. Sam frequently collaborates with his duo partner violinist Mansoon Bow, and they have performed throughout UK and in Osaka, Japan, featuring the complete Schumann Violin Sonatas. Contact Sam Liu.

Further Reading