Alfred Cortot

The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject. ***   ***   *** Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this! To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable. No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as: A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical […]

On Editions

When we learn a piece of music from a score, it is important to be able to distinguish those markings that are from the pen of the composer, and those that have been added by an editor. There are two main types of edition available to us – Urtext (the composer’s original intentions reproduced as exactly as possible) and interpretive editions (where a famous player or scholar offers their personal opinions on how to play the work). There are a couple of problems with Urtext editions. One is the editorial fingerings that appear on the same level as the composer’s otherwise unadulterated text. So often I find these fingering solutions just don’t work for the particular student I am teaching. In a score of Bach these editors’ fingerings can be particularly unhelpful and misleading, since they generally don’t factor in how our choice of articulation influences the fingering we settle on. Pianist and teacher Hans-Martin Theopold at first refused Henle’s invitation to select the fingering for their publications, saying “For fingerings are and remain something individual no matter what their quality”. He later relented and produced 226 fingered editions in total. When we work from Urtext editions, and indeed from any edition, we need to feel completely free to change fingerings in the score and come up with something that works for our hand and for the phrasing and articulation we have in our imagination. For more on this subject, follow this link to my blog post Bespoke Fingerings. The other obstacle in Baroque and Classical period Urtext scores is the relative lack of performance directions that in the day would have been up to the individual performer to decide. 21st century musicians often feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped making such decisions, and end up playing safe by playing grey. If you’re short on […]

By |November 10th, 2016|General|7 Comments

On Schumann’s Kinderszenen

It is summer time, and rather than present my usual type of post, I am planning something a little different for the next few weeks. The first is a selection of recordings of Schumann’s Kinderszenen I particularly like – I hope you enjoy them too! Kinderszenen, op. 15, is a much-loved set of 13 pieces written in 1838. Schumann dashed off the entire set in just a few days. He originally wrote 30 pieces – “pretty little things”, as he called them – from which he chose 13. The unused movements were published years later in Bunte Blätter, op. 99, and Albumblätter, op. 124. Several of Schumann’s piano works are made up of short movements that make up a whole, but you wouldn’t really think of presenting, say, Chopin (or any other movement from Carnaval, op. 9) by itself, or indeed any of the numbers that make up Papillons, Kreisleriana, etc. However, some of the individual pieces from Kinderszenen are often taken out of context and may be played as stand-alone pieces – not just as encores. These are simple, unpretentious pieces  – most are less than a page long. Despite the title of the work they were not intended for children, although children may of course play them! Schumann’s purpose was to create a tender representation of childhood for adults. We know he was very proud of these pieces. Clara was delighted with them, writing to him saying “they belong only to us”. By way of an introduction, I can do no better than invite you to listen to Murray Perahia discussing the pieces and illustrating them at the piano. The most famous piece of the set is probably Träumerei (Dreaming). When Horowitz played it as an encore there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. And now […]

Some Favourite Pianists: Part One

It is summer time in the UK, and because I have a couple of recitals to play I need to do some practising of my own. So, rather than write my normal posts for the next two or three weeks, I decided I would share with you clips of some of my favourite pianists. I am going to begin with Alfred Cortot and two of his students, Yvonne Lefébure and Clara Haskil. I first heard Cortot when I was a teenager and remember being rooted to the spot as I listened to his Chopin. I was blown away by the beauty of his sound, his incredible sense of timing and the magic that came across in everything he did. Later, as a student of piano, I was given Cortot’s edition of some Chopin I was learning and was fascinated by the exercises and practice suggestions at the foot of each page. These helped me enormously, as did the poetic running commentary that illuminated the music. Some critics go on about the number of wrong notes in his recordings, but these do not matter one bit. Our modern-day obsession with perfection did not exist at the time, and recordings had to be done in one take. Cortot was a very busy musician, in addition to his performing career he was an educator and an editor. He simply did not have that much time to practise. Alfred Cortot (26 September 1877 – 15 June 1962) Yvonne Lefébure (29 June 1898– 23 January 1986) There are several clips of Yvonne Lefébure on YouTube. I have chosen the extract from the film Une leçon de vie (A Lesson in Life) which shows her teaching Beethoven’s op. 110 – unlike the traditional Germanic left-brained approach, hers is […]

The History of Piano Technique: Studies and Exercises

There has been much feedback and lively debate on last week’s post about Czerny and his legacy of studies and exercises. It seems some piano teachers firmly believe in assigning them, whereas others are dead against them. Some take the middle path and may use them (and studies by other composers) when necessary. When discussing this controversial subject, I feel there are certain things that need to be clarified. Let’s first of all distinguish between an exercise and and a study, since these two are certainly not the same thing: Exercise Often short – a contraption for practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal Not usually very complex, with just one basic pattern (usually repeated several times) Easy to memorise No pretensions toward artistic merit Study A more extended composition with elements of musical form and structure  For practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal May be satisfying for the player, not usually so for the listener! Concert Study  The artistic content is of sufficient quality that it can stand alone as a piece of music The listener can appreciate it as a work of art without the need to know anything of the demands it makes on the player One thing that strikes me a vital in all discussion on this subject, that should be emblazoned above the door on all practice rooms: HOW we do a study or exercise matters more than WHAT we do When I studied Peter Feuchtwanger’s exercises with him back in the early 90s, I quickly came to appreciate this truth. The exercises themselves would look simplistic on paper and actually cannot really be taught from the printed page. Proper realisation of them relies on demonstration […]

Practising Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude

In last week’s post on ties and repeated notes, I referred to Chopin’s Ocean Etude (more properly known as op. 25 no. 12). A reader contacted me asking if I could offer some practice suggestions for this etude, so here are a few thoughts. The Cortot Edition Apart from his most useful exercises for practice, one of the things I really like about Alfred Cortot’s study editions is his commentary, often shedding light on the more poetic aspects of the music. It is so important to keep in mind that while each etude by Chopin is a study in a particular aspect of piano technique, it is also a tone poem. This is where Chopin’s genius lies – raising a technical study to the ranks of great art. Cortot has this to say about the poetic meaning of this etude, as he sees it: It is said…that Chopin composed this Study, as well as Study No. 12 (Op. 10), in his anguish at hearing the news that Warsaw had fallen into the hands of the Russians. If the legend can certainly add nothing to the intrinsic beauty of these two compositions, it lends them however a particularly pathetic significance. Wounded national pride, grief most sacred, generous outburst of revolt explain perfectly the sublime ardour that sweeps through these pages. Keeping the meaning of the music in mind while we study the technical difficulties is for me paramount. Thanks to Walter Cosand, I am able to give you the link to his wonderful library of scores. Search through and you will find the pdfs to the full English translations. Cortot realised the importance of diagnosing the technical problem and came up with an array of exercises that focus […]

By |September 20th, 2013|Practising|7 Comments

Chopin’s First Ballade – a Practice Suggestion

Chopin’s evergreen First Ballade has never been more popular, thanks in part to Alan Rusbridger’s book about his personal quest with the piece, Play It Again. It is a piece that most aspiring young pianists yearn to play (often before they are ready for it) and you’ll hear it coming out of conservatory practice room doors the world over. Given the exposure of the piece, it is easy to forget that it presents formidable challenges for all who choose to play it, amateur and professional alike. I thought I would offer some occasional suggestions for practice, starting with a small section that seems to trip a lot of players up. Let’s look at the section beginning in bar 138, a waltz if ever there was one (compare this with Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, op. 34, no. 1): I am sure many players give a lot of attention to the RH here, and yet without a beautifully crafted LH this passage is doomed to fall off the rails. The filigree passagework of the RH is only going to work if the LH can provide a buoyant, rhythmical underpinning – think of the RH as the dancer and the LH as the orchestra. Make sure you can play the LH by itself fluently, up to speed and beautifully shaped. Listen to the second slurred crotchet, making sure it is softer than the first; enjoy the dissonance between the A flat and the A natural in the second beat. Of the many editions available in The Petrucci Library, only a few include LH fingering for this passage and in his excellent study edition (available in Petrucci in French), Alfred Cortot gives but one practice suggestion here. Cortot’s perverse fingering for […]

Keep Calm and Carry On Practising

When I was on the selection committee for the 11th Unisa International Piano Competition, we listened to two solid days of audio recordings, one after the other. Our selection of those pianists who would go forward into the competition was made purely by listening – we weren’t given their names, ages or any other information about the entrants, they had to make their impression on us solely by the sounds they made. There are viral performance on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are (all) destined to be the next Horowitz. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen. Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here. In my adjudication work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing – having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical […]

Inventing Exercises from Pieces

There are pieces that contain passages of technical difficulty that require special attention, a type of practising over and above the routine use of the other practice tools. This could  also apply to whole pieces, of course – concert studies being a good example. We might need to find creative ways to solve these problems by getting into the habit of making our own exercises based on the material from the piece. These exercises might explore different facets of the difficulty by creating extended or slightly varied versions. This tends to make the passage harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when we go back to the original, we understand it better and it just feels easier. Meeting the demands of a technical challenge is a bit like capturing a wild animal. If we approach it from one direction, it will run off in another. Therefore, we need a multi-pronged strategy involving very many different approaches to practising. Inventing exercises can be challenging at first, but once we get into the habit it is amazing how creative we can become at dreaming these up as we practise. My scores are littered with my own exercises, and I return to these when I go back to a particular piece, sometimes coming up with a different or better solution. If you explore any one of the study editions of Alfred Cortot, you will find many ideas for such practice exercises. For me, it was Cortot who primed the pump. Here is Chopin’s set of Etudes, op. 10 in the Cortot edition, made available by Walter Cosand. In Debussy’s First Arabesque, there is an awkward passage that usually confuses the hand, the few bars just before the […]