“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”
Plato

Monday, February 11, 2019

Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto: Small Point, Universal Application

     
   
Rachmaninoff
My student complained of awkwardness in the second movement of Rachmaninoff's C minor concerto, where the hands cross over one another. These measures are in the poco piu mosso section. He tried to keep his left hand in place, which put the thumb on G-sharp bringing the left hand in toward the black keys. This made it more difficult to cross the right hand over to its G-sharp thumb an octave below. Having both thumbs in and the hands crossed is a prescription for awkwardness, if not disaster. Collision is likely. In
physics we learn that two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. 
Of course, the right hand could play its G-sharp with the second finger, but that feels farther. Use the F-natural as a spring board in order to move laterally (rotationally) over the lower left hand to the low G-sharp.

     Two measures later a similar passage places the thumbs again on the same plane with a crossing, this time out on the white keys—that is, if one chooses to use the thumb both times. I prefer to use the second finger on the low right-hand G-natural this time in order to avoid a possible collision. Keep the left hand out and as low as possible  Because of the ritardando, though, this is not as big an issue.
     The moral, then, is to plan hand crossings in order to avoid having the hands on the same plane whenever possible. One hand is higher, the other lower. I'm thinking now of Ravel, particularly the Sonatine opening. The piano literature is full of these small issues that, without planning, can cause large problems.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Brahms and Chopin: Impossible trills in the First Cello Sonata, B Minor Rhapsody, Heroic Polonaise and G Minor Ballade

Brahms
     My very advanced student (young artist, really) had an opportunity to play the Brahms E Minor cello sonata with a colleague. Chamber music excursions are to be encouraged,  as there can be no better opportunity for soloists to learn how to listen to themselves in relation to their surroundings. As we all know, Brahms' piano writing can seem pesky when taken at face (score) value. Consider the "impossible" trills in the D Minor Concerto. But I'll leave those to another time.
     Beginning in measure 20 of the cello sonata's
third movement, a series of octave-infused trills presents pianists with a quandary. We can be pretty sure the rascally composer doesn't mean to trill in octaves with one hand. (This is not the aforementioned concerto.) My student asked the relevant question: "How in the h*** do I do that?" He is not the first to ask. 
     
     The solution is really quite simple. Get off the thumb immediately after striking it and move the weight of the hand over to the ornament. This means that you—yes, you—take your thumb with your hand; don't leave it extended to where it used to be. Now, instead of throwing yourself at a wild and crazy machine-gun trill, decide on how many notes will fit into the space you've allotted. This depends to some extent on your tempo. I've found that a simple turn of five notes creates the desired effect. A touch of pedal added, and the thumb octave also gets its due. My student found that moving from the last beat of measure 23 was the most challenging, which is the 2nd example below.
Brahms E Minor Sonata for Cello and Piano,
third movement mm 22-23
     A similar approach, that is, closing the hand in 
order to accommodate an ornament, may be
Not this!
applied in other repertoire. Look at the opening of Brahms' B Minor Rhapsody. Here the composer writes a changing note group after an octave. This is not the same as a trill, I know, but you would be surprised at how many students don't release the octave, due perhaps, to the heightened agitation of the musical effect. Play the octave alone, then begin over with  the triplet, connecting the two with pedal. I call this a technical grouping, not a musical one. 

     And again, in Chopin I can think of two examples off the top of my head (where there used to be a lot more hair). In the "Heroic" Polonaise, second page, play the first sixteenth alone, then group the next four sixteenths together beginning from the short trill, a triplet, really. This approach helps to close the hand, which should not remain open. The solution is similar in measure 119 of the G Minor Ballade, where octave scales begin with a trill on top of an octave. Again, get away from the thumb. Here I play a group of four notes beginning with the thumb F-sharp and moving to the upper F-sharp (1-4-5-4).

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Brahms Op. 117, No. 1, by Carl Friedberg

Carl Friedberg 1872-1955


     Carl Friedberg was one of the most successful and distinguished pianists who emerged from the studio of Clara Schumann. He was one of the early piano professors at what would later become the Juilliard School. From his studio came some of the biggest names of the first part of the 20th century: Malcom Frager, Bruce Hungerford, William Masselos and Elly Ney. His professional debut was with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Not so bad.
     Now here's where I sat up and took notice when reading his bio. In 1893 he played an all Brahms program with the composer in the audience. Apparently, Brahms admired his playing and coached him in private on most of his pieces. Coached by Brahms! So, when we listen to his playing, we may in fact be coming as close as we can to hearing Brahms himself. Maybe. It's a big responsibility to pile onto Friedberg's hands. Still, we listen to his one commercial recording—Friedberg apparently disliked recorded piano sound—and it gives us food for thought. The eighty-one-year-old pianist plays here the first of the Opus 117 Intermezzos: Carl Friedberg.


Friday, January 4, 2019

Bach on the Piano


J.S. Bach
     A student asks for opinions regarding articulation when playing Bach on the piano. Should it mostly be detached in order to imitate the harpsichord, she wonders, "which couldn't sustain long notes like the modern piano does."
     She's right. The harpsichord can't sustain long notes "like the modern piano," though it can sustain significantly longer than many modern pianists seem to think. This is based on my observation of how short and detached harpsichord imitators of today play. 
Harpsichord
     And to those who declare Bach didn't know, play, approve of or write for the new fortepiano I say nonsense. Though his friend and instrument builder Silbermann was at first unsuccessful in
Fortepiano
impressing the composer with his first attempts in the 1730s, eventually Bach declared his "complete satisfaction" with the improved fortepiano. According to pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen, the six-voice ricercare from The Musical offering, a fugue many consider Bach's greatest, was "
the most significant piano work of the millennium, as it is perhaps the first piece composed for the recently invented piano—at least, the first piece that a composer knew would certainly be played on a piano."
     Articulation is of course a main consideration in Bach. How we treat the differences between long and short notes is crucial to bringing the music to life and giving it its Baroque flavor. Some rules of thumb (no pun intended) might be to play conjunct notes more connected and disjunct notes more detached. Two-note slurs are virtually always realized with emphasis on the first note, relaxing on the second. This can be achieved with sound (louder/softer) or by length of notes (longer/shorter). The last note in a group of conjunct notes might be articulated. These are, of course, just general guidelines. As CPE Bach writes: "If it doesn't sound good, don't do it." In the final analysis, our expressive decisions are based on taste, for which there is often no accounting—and study.
     In the introduction to the Inventions and Sinfonias Bach writes: "Those desirous of learning... [will] ABOVE ALL [my emphasis] achieve a cantabile style in playing." Length of notes relative to one another becomes more crucial in quick, characterful pieces; it is less so in slower arias. We get to decide if we want to imitate the harpsichord, as many do, or play the piano using its resources, which I personally believe Bach would applaud. As long as the counterpoint isn't swamped with pedal, the piece will still sound like Bach. My personal view is that if you want "authenticity," play the harpsichord, which I have done on occasion. I prefer the piano.
     I came across a comparison of these instruments, which includes the clavichord, reportedly Bach's favorite: Listen.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Chopin Etude in C, Op. 10, No. 1

Vladimir de Pachman
1848-1933

Here is an engaging performance by Vladimir de Pachman at a time well before the Chopin etudes became part of the Daytona 500 races. Think about it. Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 1

     De Pachman studied with Joseph Dachs, a  pupil of Carl Czerny. He was nicknamed "Chopinzee" by one critic because he specialized in that composer and his stage manner was eccentric, including muttering and odd gestures. George Bernard Shaw reported that he "gave his well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin." But his performances, almost exclusively Chopin, were highly regarded as authentic and he was considered one of the great pianists of his day.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Stories from Musical Life

Gentle Readers:

I'm happy to announce that THE GRAPEFRUIT CAKE INCIDENT AND OTHER STORIES INSTRUCTIVE AND CAUTIONARY FROM MUSICAL LIFE has been corrected, yet again, and is back on the shelves at Amazon. So, if you've been waiting for Santa's elfin editors to finish their proofing, now is the time. And to those of you who've endured the typos, please accept my apologies. If you didn't notice them, then never mind.