I remember playing those spot the difference puzzles when I was a kid – where you have to find a number of differences between two images that at first glance look the same. With a little perseverance and a canny eye, it is a satisfying pastime. Perhaps this is a good thing for encouraging an essential skill for musicians – the ability to really observe what is there in the score. I am thinking of those pieces where a passage comes back again, not identically but with small variations.
Two such examples come immediately to mind – of diploma repertoire that I teach regularly, where students often go astray stumbling over the notes. The cause of the stumble is not necessarily a technical error, rather a lack of clarity and perception about the structure of the music and the changes from one similar spot to another. Is the solution to practise the places more until they finally fall into place, or to sit away from the piano with a score making notes about the differences?
Brahms Intermezzo in A, op 118 no 2
In Brahms op 118 no 2 we find several examples of developing variation technique, where returning material is subject to change. The changes create contrast with what has gone before by embellishing a certain feature for emphasis, or providing a change of texture or mood.
Look at the first version of this ending (bars 6-8), where Brahms arrives in the dominant key of E. Notice there is a separate note stem for the top line (RH stems up), implying the top line is perhaps a little more important:
The next time we find this ending (bars 14-16), we discover this stem has been removed (from the second bar of this example). What might Brahms mean by changing the stemming here? Could it be that he is after a more harmonic, homogenised texture, with a little less voicing to the top note, or is this just how he happened to write it down the second time? Given his scrupulous attention to detail, I can’t help thinking we must reflect this difference in our sound. I notice there is a little more padding in the middle, as well as a lovely appoggiatura (B# – C# in the second violin). I like to hear this resolution played very delicately, so I can feel the interval of the ninth from the top E to the low D# (bar 15, beats 2-3). At the cadence itself (bar 16) the (new) LH quavers seem to encourage forward movement into the next phrase.
The third and last time we hear this spot is when the A section returns (bars 81-83). We notice the middles are even thicker and more generous this time, but the crowning glory is the triumphant leap of the octave in the RH from B to B (previously he had only managed a seventh). Play this with a Russian crescendo, giving the upbeat a little space before floating the upper note, pianissimo, just like a singer might do. This “anti-climax” is more telling and much more beautiful when done this way, rather than pushing forwards and slamming into the top B.
If you are memorising the piece, it is great practice to play each version of this phrase side by side.
Chopin Ballade No 1 in G minor, op 23
The most obvious difference between these two passages appearing one after the other in the Ballade (from bar 36) is at the dynamic level, but look carefully at the RH groups in the first version and compare them with the second.
In the melancholic p version, the RH quavers themselves form the line and are (more or less) connected by the ties. The appoggiaturas in the tenor are beautifully reflected each time by the RH just as the LH resolves, and we need to hear this. In the more turbulent f version, we are more aware of the line produced by the RH octaves, the quavers now in an inner part, and meeting a crotchet rest (which needs to be audible). The LH octaves are obviously there to add sonority, but notice the difference in what happens in the tenor region. Easy to get these two versions muddled, and many players do.
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