Pedalling Chopin’s B minor Prelude

Chopin’s 24 Préludes, op. 28 were composed at a difficult time in the composer’s life. It was the winter of 1838-9, and Chopin and his lover George Sand had decided to visit Majorca for a romantic holiday. He had contracted tuberculosis and, for fear of contamination, none of the local inhabitants would allow them to stay. So they ended up in the abandoned monastery in Valldemossa – miles from anywhere. To make matters worse, Chopin’s piano was held up by customs so he had to rent another, a small upright known as a pianino built by Bauza, a local. To say it was not up to the job would be an understatement, but this unpretentious little instrument ended up with a fascinating history and was later owned by the great Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska. Paul Kildea has written an entertaining and informative book about this piano – Chopin’s Piano – A Journey Through Romanticism  While the Préludes make a magnificent set when heard all together, several of them are manageable by intermediate players. Number 6 in B minor is currently on ABRSM’s Grade 6 exam syllabus, and while at first glance it appears relatively straightforward, it is actually far from easy. The cello-like melody in the left hand needs to be played with projection, shape and an understanding of legato cantabile touch, and because the player’s attention is likely to be focussed on the left hand it is all too easy to neglect the tolling bell we hear in the repeated right hand B’s. The quaver pairs need a lot of control and careful listening if we are to stress the first and lighten the second as marked. Pedalling is another issue in this Prélude. Are […]

Bach Partita in B Flat Video Walkthroughs

Even though they were among the last keyboard suites Bach wrote, the six Partitas, BWV 825–830, appeared from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-Übung I, the first of Bach’s works to be published under his direction.  The format follows the typical recipe for a suite, the mandatory allemande–courante–sarabande–gigue framework expanded by the addition of an opening movement, and then the galanteries (chosen by Bach from a pool of optional extra dances) towards the end of each suite.  The Partita in B flat, the first of the set, is the lightest and most intimate, and to my mind the most charming. The gigue even ends in mid air! The ABRSM has set the Menuets I and II for Grade 6. They make a beautiful contrasting pair of dances – the first sprightly and elegant, the second more solid and sustained.  Menuet I Make sure to add your own dynamics (probably between a range from forte to piano) as well as articulations (a range of touches including legato, staccato, tenuto, leggiero, slurs and short phrasings, etc.). If you look into the score you will discover most of this is implied by the structure of the music – its shapes, designs, modulations, and patterns. Remember there is no one right way of playing this music, but many possibilities. Menuet II Menuet II is only 16 bars in length, and thicker in texture than Menuet I. This texture implies a stronger dynamic, more legato cantabile – a more solid approach in general. If you play the repeats (not required in the exam) you might play them softer and more reflectively; experiment too with the left pedal (una corda) on one of the repeats. The soft pedal can be effective in baroque music if used very occasionally on a repeat – not necessarily to change the […]

Precision Measurement in Jumps

Today I present an excerpt from my walkthrough of Max Bruch’s delightful Moderato from the Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 12, No. 4 (currently on the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus). In the video I illustrate three practice tools that will help gain control of the jumps. You may think my demonstration is a bit long-winded and laborious, but the idea is to show you principles of practice that you can apply to any jumps that cause difficulty – no matter the grade or level. In the Bruch piece, the jumps are in the left hand and it is important that the left hand be very comfortable with what it has to do, so that you can put your full attention on making the right hand sing expressively. For a link to the score, click here You will probably want to begin by playing and singing the right hand, to get a sense of the character of the melody. Next, look at the left hand and notice there are two components – a bass line in single notes (on the main beats, played with the pinky) and a harmonic filler (on the off beats). For the second step, play the melody line against the bass line (omitting the chords). Then, to help you relate one chord to the next, you might try playing the left hand chords without interrupting them with the bass notes to create a harmonic progression (just make sure you use the fingering you will end up using when you put everything together).  Now we are going to work at the left hand by itself, using the three practice tools: Quick Cover Play the bass note and hold it. Prepare yourself to move to the chord that follows […]

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 1

In 2015 I published a series of what turned out to be six posts on how to begin a new piece. At this time of the year, many people are starting a new academic year and embarking on a new programme of study, and judging from readers’ responses this series really helped them. I decided to republish them, and you’ll find links to the remaining posts series at the end of this post. Next week will see a return to new and original posts – do please let me know in the comments area below if there are any topics you would especially like me to cover. ***   ***   *** I have a pet theory that, if playing the piano were easy, everyone would be doing it. I mean – who wouldn’t want to create moments of beauty and meaning in their day by strolling over to a piano and playing a Bach Suite, a Chopin Nocturne or a Beethoven Sonata? The fact is playing the piano to a standard we can be proud of is very far from easy; it is a highly challenging and skilled activity requiring intelligence, sophisticated motor control – plus tons of hard work and dedication on an ongoing basis. The Process of Practice One of the biggest obstacles to reaching our goal is not appreciating the difference between the process of practising and the act of performing (or playing through). This dichotomy is often misunderstood even by conservatory piano students who assume they are practising when they hammer through their pieces, hacking at errors until they consider them vanquished. Hours can be wasted doing it this way, with no guarantee of successful results at the end of it all. We may be […]

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 […]