Rediscovering Bach’s Prelude in C

The C major Prelude from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C (Book 1 of the WTC) is very familiar to us all. This beautiful progression of harmony in broken chord texture continues to inspire generations of keyboard players. Here it is as a chorale. Play it first as solid chords – faster than Bach’s broken patterns allow – to get a stronger sense of the progression in this pure form. If you’re uncertain how to play this Prelude expressively, all you have to do is feel the rising and falling levels of intensity implied by the harmonic progression. This map from Siglind Bruhn’s analysis of the work is a useful guide. For those who have a knack for improvisation, see what you can make from these harmonies. French Romantic composer Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria consists of a melody especially designed to be superimposed over the Prelude – and very beautiful it is too! Perhaps you can come up with something of your own? Here is Rami Bar-Niv’s inventive and amusing Etude-Vocalise on the C major Prelude Transpose I am working with an especially talented and ambitious young student who, if he is going to readily assimilate the mainstream repertoire he is destined to play, needs to develop his harmonic awareness as well as general musicianly skills at this stage of his development. Part of the work we are doing is transposition – a skill I wish my own teachers had stressed more, and one that I feel is indispensable to aural training, general musicianship and as a specific pianistic tool for memory work and solving technical problems. I tend to push this with those who are capable of, and willing to embrace it. Not everyone is, but this particular student […]

Flexibility in Interpretation

You only have to listen to the same piece played by different pianists to appreciate there is no such thing as the one “correct” way to play it. Tempo and timings, pedalling, style, phrasing – the list of variables goes on and on. Here is an example of such diversity, Liszt’s La leggierezza study as recorded by Carlo Vidusso, Earl Wild and Georges Cziffra. Each performer plays the piece in his own unique way. There are some pianists who agonise over each and every detail of their interpretation in the studio, sweating blood until they have crystallised their vision of the music and got it just right. Their one true version remains steadfast, a statue permanently carved in sound. Here is Clifford Curzon‘s working copy of No. 5 from Schubert’s Moment Musicaux, completely covered with his annotations. You can listen to his performance here, from 11:40 Shura Cherkassky, on the other hand, said he never played a work twice in the same way. He didn’t know how he was going to play even as he walked out onto the stage; it was as though he were improvising his interpretation in public. He had the necessary technical control that gave him absolute freedom of expression, and this is one of the reasons his live performances were always so exciting and unpredictable. A paradox exists in musical interpretation. If we haven’t made any decisions about what we want to do, we have no idea what is going to come out in our performance. It might be wonderful or it might be terrible, but it will certainly be unpredictable. If our performance decisions are too rigid, our playing risks sounding stiff, staid and boring. We set ourselves an impossible task, since the rigidly planned approach does not take […]

Freshen it Up

One of my young ABRSM Grade VIII candidates brought Bach’s C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 for his lesson. It is a piece he knows very well, having successfully performed it already some months ago. He had put the piece away for a while, and now has to revise it for an exam. In the lesson, it was clear the Prelude had become rather stale and lacklustre. Recent practice hadn’t quite had the desired effect of getting the hands to play precisely together at all times, and his interest in the piece seemed to have waned. Because of this, he was not engaging in the practice room – just dutifully going through the motions from time to time. I needed to get him to reconnect with the piece, to rekindle some passion and interest for the music itself. Even though the hands not always being quite together seemed like a technical issue, I decided to try and find a creative solution first. I could have sat with him analysing each movement, correcting and adjusting it, but in this instance I wanted to try working with the imagination. All I did was to pick up an album of pieces sitting by the piano. We opened it up to some random piece and observed the title, tempo and character indications; we also aimed to catch the general feel of the piece from a cursory glance. The first one we got was Nocturne in B, op. 32 No. 1, by Chopin, marked Andante sostenuto. My student sat for a moment taking in as much as he could, before I asked him to play the Prelude in that style – in the spirit of a game, as though Bach were wearing Chopin’s clothes. What came out was something quite lovely. He […]

Beethoven Masterclasses

Beethoven wrote his 32 piano sonatas between the ages of 25 and 55, thus they span the composer’s so-called early, middle and late periods and paint a rich picture of his stylistic development. When I study a Beethoven sonata, I like to consult two or three different editions but my working score is Henle Urtext – that’s where I put in my fingerings and other annotations. While I have a soft spot for the commentary and fingerings in the old Craxton-Tovey ABRSM edition, the latest ABRSM version by Barry Cooper is more scholarly, with editorial slurs and other unhelpful markings removed from their earlier publication (when such tampering mattered less). Artur Schnabel’s edition makes an excellent supplement to a standard Urtext, and it is also worth looking at Hans von Bülow’s for fingerings and footnotes (available on IMSLP). There are some recent Henle editions of individual sonatas with excellent fingerings by Murray Perahia, I heartily recommend these. I would urge you to listen to the podcasts of András Schiff’s Wigmore Hall lecture recitals on each of the sonatas. Books I can recommend include A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas by Donald Francis Tovey; Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas: A Short Companionby Charles Rosen and for a more general handbook I think Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music by Sondra P. Rosenblum should be on every pianist’s bookshelf. I have heard great things about Jonathan Biss’s online course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I was a contributor to the latest special edition from Pianist Magazine – Great Piano Composers of the Classical Era, with my article on the Beethoven sonatas. For more details, click here. Here are some of the best of the masterclasses available on YouTube. Please let me know if you find any more you feel […]

The Myth of the Instant Fix

I have admitted before that I like to stand outside institutional practice room doors and listen to what is going on inside. So often the practiser is just hammering through their piece at full speed, and triple fortissimo. When they make a mistake they hack away at it until it finally yields, and simply move on. What they have actually practised is getting it wrong three or four times in a row and right on the fifth attempt. What, then, are the chances of getting it right the first time in the context of the flow of the piece? I’m no statistician, but I would have thought very slim indeed. They are far more likely to get it wrong again until they take steps to get to the root of what derailed them in the first place. This takes conscious thought, self reflection and a spirit of enquiry. Remember – practice makes permanent, and whatever you repeatedly do will become ingrained. Instead of thinking of the mistake as an enemy we throttle until we destroy it, we might instead consider it a messenger. The mistake is there to tell us something, and we can learn from it. What went wrong, and where exactly did it go wrong? If the derailment or slip happened in bar 28, was it something just before that caused it? Was it a lapse of memory or concentration, or a technical problem? Or was it that I haven’t really settled on a workable fingering, or organised my pedalling? Am I really sure exactly what is happening in that bar, or am I winging it? Does my LH really know the middle notes of that chord? How would I label that chord, and […]