Vladimir Horowitz

On Tempo Relationships

I was working with someone on Schubert’s B flat Impromptu last week, a set of variations on the so-called “Rosamunde” theme. Variation form always poses a tempo challenge to the performer – how to adapt the basic tempo we have chosen for the theme as the variations unfold.  The edition my student was using was by the one by Howard Ferguson, from the ABRSM’s Signature Series. Ferguson is a musician and scholar for whom I have a lot of respect, so I was very interested to find in the preface some tempo suggestions that are “in no way authoritative, but may prove helpful if only as points of departure”.  Schubert marks the theme Andante – most important, of course, to notice the all breve time signature, so that’s two beats in a bar (on no account must it feel like four). I’ve just been on YouTube to sample the tempo from a few recordings, here are the first five that came up in the search: Lisitsa – c. 35 Pires – c. 35 Brendel – c. 40 Schiff – c. 45 Zimerman – c. 46 It was difficult to find a fixed pulse for the Horowitz recording I found. He brings his own inimitable Romantic approach to the work that has a magic all it’s own. Howard Ferguson gives his suggestions in crotchet beats (strangely), and a tempo of 80 for the theme (40 for the minim beat). This increase to 88 (44) for the Variation 1, the slight increase making sense in light of the forward-flowing semiquaver movement that always reminds me of the sort of music Schubert writes when describing brooks or streams of water. Variation 2 pushes the pulse still further, at 96 (48), before a new, […]

Great Pianists Interviewed

One of my favourite books of interviews is Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus. It is full of insight into the pianist’s art, and Ms. Marcus’ questions are always very astute. Along with Pianists at Play by Dean Elder, I turn to  Abram Chasins’ Speaking of Pianists for inspiration. How wonderful to find these clips on YouTube, conversations and interviews with famous pianists as well as some interesting documentaries. I hope you enjoy them! Vladimir Horowitz Artur Rubinstein Daniel Barenboim Evgeny Kissin Sviatoslav Richter Maria Yudina The Art of the Piano Greats of the Twentieth Century Imagine Being a Concert Pianist Do or Die: Lang Lang’s Story Resources Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus (click here) Pianists at Play by Dean Elder (click here) Speaking of Pianists by Abram Chasins (click here)

By |January 7th, 2016|General|3 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 […]

It’s All in the Mind!

As part of this short series on tension I would like to explore how our mental state affects our performance, and suggest ways we can improve what is going on in our own head if our self-talk is less than positive. It is possible to play with a certain amount of tension but it’s like running into the wind. Trust, a healthy mindset and thorough preparation turn the current of wind from in front to behind you – pushing you forwards and not backwards. Adrenaline can enhance your performance if you know how to turn fear into excitement. Anyone who has ever performed will have experienced loss of control. It is deeply unsettling to practise to a point where we can watch our fingers do the job beautifully only to have these same highly-trained digits sabotage us in performance. What felt comfortable, natural and reliable in our practice room suddenly feels unfamiliar and fickle in the presence of someone else. We know the piece backwards and can play it in our sleep, and yet fear of forgetting or losing control when onstage might be enough to cause us to panic. And the crazy thing is not knowing when it’s going to happen. We might be absolutely fine performing to hundreds of people in a large concert hall, and yet our fingers turn to jelly when a friend’s aunt (who knows nothing about music) asks us to play  a little something for her in her living room. It might surprise you to learn that many of the world’s top performers in all fields of artistic endeavour have struggled with stage fright – Vladimir Horowitz stopped performing several times during his career (often for years at a time) […]

Mental States in Performance

We all know the importance of early training in shaping a pianist, with correct musical and technical development right at the top of the list. There is another vital ingredient in the mix that is sometimes overlooked, the responsibility of the teacher to nurture a healthy psychological outlook in the student. Lessons should always be positive experiences even when faults need to be corrected or discipline meted out. This is why teachers should balance positive feedback on the playing and the week’s work with constructive comments and instructions that are delivered in a manner that is always respectful and empowering – never shaming. It is also the teacher’s responsibility not to put their student in for competitions before they are ready, and to prepare them fully for all performances. This way the student develops a healthy self-esteem with regard to their playing – a positive mental attitude. I am very pleased to announce that Part 4 of my e-book series, Practising the Piano has just rolled off the end of the production line and will be launched next week. I will tell you more about the contents of the publication in next week’s post but first I want to talk a little further about the importance of cultivating a positive mental attitude as a ploy to counter performance anxiety.   Performance Nerves In conjunction with writing and researching the book, I decided to run a short, informal and anonymous survey, Performance Anxiety Among Pianists. I was delighted by the response, well over 1,000 took the trouble to complete it and I have included some of the stats in my book. It is no secret that many of the world’s greatest concert pianists have at some […]

Focus in Practice

As a teacher, my chief aim is to assist my students in playing more freely and expressively. A big part of that process is helping them unlock their unique musical personality and equipping them with a solid technical foundation. There has been much discussion of late in the piano networks on technical matters, so I thought I would do my bit to put some of this into perspective. I feel very fortunate to have had wonderful training as a pianist, fairly eclectic as I went along and culminating with intensive and long-term study with a representative of the very best of the modern Russian School. Someone asked me the other day what makes one school of piano playing better than another, and in what ways are they different? Interesting question! The piano is by now a fully evolved instrument, and the traditions of playing and teaching it are well established. Certain ways of manipulating the keyboard have been passed down because they seem to work across the board, while others have been thrown out as inefficient or injurious. There will always be differences between the national schools of playing – the French School is known for its fastidiousness to fine detail and its focus on the fingers, while the Russian School for its full, projected sound, its physical athleticism and ability to focus talent from a very young age. And yet there is really no such thing as “The Russian School”, since there are several lineages involved even here. Yesterday I gave a day’s workshop on piano technique for Evoco in Belfast, under the auspices of the inspirational Sharon Mark-Teggart. Towards the end there was a Q&A session, and one diploma candidate asked whether it was […]

Some Historic Pianos

As I wind up my short tribute to the pianos of yesteryear, I want to mention two particular pianos that stand out in my memory. Last week, I wrote about my experience playing Chopin’s music on the very Broadwood that Chopin himself selected to play when he was in London. This week, I recall a more recent concert of music for four hands by Schumann with my former student, Daniel Grimwood on a very lovely Erard built in 1851 (we played the early Polonaises and Bilder aus Osten, op. 66). There was a beautiful clarity in the sound, and (unlike our homogenised modern piano) a noticeably different tonal quality in each register. This made problems of balance much easier to solve. Here is Daniel talking about his award-winning recording of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage made on this instrument (he has also recorded the Chopin Preludes on it). Another instrument that stands out in my memory is the Horowitz Steinway. In the late 80’s I had the opportunity to try out Vladimir Horowitz’s own personal Steinway, at Steinway Hall in New York City.  In the early 1940’s, Steinway & Sons presented Horowitz and his wife Wanda with a Steinway Model D, Serial #279503. Known simply as CD503, this is the piano Horowitz kept in his New York townhouse. He used it in many recitals and recordings in the 70’s and 80’s, and he famously demanded that the piano be his exclusive touring instrument during the last four years of his life, including for his triumphant return to the former Soviet Union for performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1986. Horowitz had the piano set up to suit his own playing style and concept of sound, and when I played it it was […]

The History of Piano Technique: The Finger School

The connecting link between the harpsichord and the early piano was undoubtedly Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), whose treatise Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments was revered by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), Johann Baptist Cramer (1717-1858) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), and laid the foundations for their method books. Muzio Clementi required his students to practise with a penny on the back of the hand so that the hand remained still, all the work being done by the fingers (which were to stay close to the keys) with the arm staying fixed, quiet and passive. His music is written idiomatically for the piano and includes octaves, tremolos, double thirds, rapid repeated notes, crossed hand passages, and so on. He is known for his many sonatas and sonatinas, his method book Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte, op. 42, and the set of studies Gradus ad Parnassum. In the opening piece of Children’s Corner, Debussy pokes fun at Clementi. Here is Ivan Moravec in a gently lyrical reading of Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum. Carl Czerny (1791-1857) has been hailed as the forefather of modern piano playing, and most of us can trace our lineage directly back to him. For example, Rachmaninov was taught by Alexander Siloti who was taught by Eugen D’Albert who was taught by Emil von Sauer who was taught by William Mason who was taught by Moriz Rosenthal who was taught by Liszt who was taught by Czerny. If you wish to see a fuller family tree, here is the link. Czerny’s father, Wensel, was a piano teacher and trained Carl from an early age, presenting him before the public at the age of 9 (Carl commenced his own career as a teacher at the tender age of 14). He became a student of […]

The History of Piano Technique (Part 2)

One of the things that really gets my goat is the totally erroneous statement that the harpsichord is incapable of expression. Many famous and influential pianists who should know better regularly fall into this trap. We need to remember that the harpsichord from the High Baroque was a fully developed and mature instrument, perfect for the music written for it. In order to play expressively on the harpsichord, it is necessary to have a highly developed sense of touch. Harpsichord players make a slight articulation before a note to give it an accent, or they might delay it or hold onto it a little longer. In an expressively slurred pair of notes, the player overlaps the two notes by holding onto the first until just after playing the second note – this overlap masks the attack of the second note, thus making it sound softer. You really can create the impression of strong-weak in a slur, especially if you let go of the second note early. Sensitive under- and overlapping of notes combined with skilful timings cause the playing to sound musical and expressive. This is but illusion, I hear you say! I suggest that making an actual honest-to-goodness crescendo in a melodic line on the piano also relies on illusion, since the individual tones begin to decay the moment they have been sounded. We achieve a crescendo by artfully blending the end of one sound into the beginning of the next. Pianists spend most of our lives attempting to make a percussion instrument sing. As a youngster, I was fascinated by the hybrid harpsichords made by Pleyel, Goble and others, with their array of pedals. Here is the inimitable and great Wanda Landowska playing Bach […]

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 […]