“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.”

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Piano as Sport: Is Competition Really Necessary?

     A FaceBook page I came across offered a comparison of sixteen celebrated pianists playing in succession the famous octave passage in Tchaikovsky's first concerto. The participants in
the discussion opined on which was best, meaning who played them the fastest. This reminded me of being at the horse races, where the winner received a prize and those who bet correctly came away with cash.
     Each of these performances was accurate, dramatic and musically appropriate. How fast does it need to be in order to make the musical point? I
have to wonder why some folks want to turn art into sport. In music, it seems to me, faster is not necessarily more effective musically. I heard a very distinguished pianist with a justifiably legendary technique play the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto so fast I was left wondering where all the great moments had gone. There's a Sufi saying that goes something like this: The man was in such a hurry to get to heaven that he ran right past it.
      Since concert fees are negotiated in advance, why not just enjoy the music on its own terms? There will be no prize money and the audience hasn't placed any bets. We can compare and admire pianists for their artistry without making a competition out of it. Jody Foster does a funny take in the film Maverick when she asks, "Do you want to see the fastest gun in the west?" Then immediately without moving at all says, "Do you want to see it again?"

Monday, February 11, 2019

Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto: Small Point, Universal Application

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

     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).