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.

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