can’t see the forest

Schiff plays Bach, BWV 826

Posted in András Schiff, Bach, Classical Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 3/21/09

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From a 2000 performance at the Mozartsaal at Schloss Schwetzingen, Germany, pianist András Schiff performs J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor (there are a couple of small ‘blink-outs’ in the video, but no worries):

Part I – (Sinfonia, Allemande)

Part II – (Courante, Sarabande, Rondeau, Capriccio)

With the likely exception of the Goldberg Variations (Schiff’s take on those, b.t.w., can be found here), this particular partita is my personal favorite among Bach’s clavier works. It is in the rich, dark key of C minor that we might associate with Mozart’s Sonata K. 457, or Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, but there is nothing mournful, angry, or ominous about the tonality in this instance. To me, it suggests perhaps the green abundance of summer on an overcast day, with bees buzzing all around.

While my first pick is Martha Argerich’s live recording for Deutsche Grammophon from ’78 or ’79, Schiff’s interpretation is superlative in several respects.  The balance and interaction between voices is handled with astonishing grace, Schiff makes excellent use of tone color, and the tempos are sensible and not romanticized. Schiff’s agréments in repeated sections are clever, creative, and cleanly executed. His reading of the Capriccio is a bit on the heavy side for my preference, but it is as texturally clear and as colorful as any of the other movements, so I don’t complain. All in all, a masterful performance.

It was the Capriccio, actually, that first drew me to this partita. It’s a complete masterpiece in miniature, and full of technical and musical problems for the performer, but also represents Bach at his most whimsical. Here’s an Argerich performance from Verbier last year.

Horowitz plays Schubert

Posted in Classical Music, Horowitz, Music Videos, Piano, Schubert by Curtis on 3/17/09

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The eight Impromptus (Op. 90 & 142, D. 899 & 935) of Franz Schubert represent the finest in early-Romantic character pieces for the piano. They are elegantly crafted, diverse in mood and expression, and they showcase Schubert’s unique sensitivity as a melodist. The title suggests music of an improvisatory character, and there are great moments of spontaneity, but the pieces are carefully structured and balanced.

From YouTube, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89) here performs the Impromptu in G-flat major (Op. 90, No. 3). The video is a little out of synch with the audio, but it’s well worth the listen.

Horowitz could play the thunderous virtuoso very well. The depth of his artistry is even more apparent in intimate, lyrical music such as this. The command of tone color and the crystal clarity of the texture even at a pianissimo evidence amazing technical control. Horowitz’s imaginative and perfectly executed phrasing and shading–in which, at times, each note of the melody seems to simply melt into the next–identify him as one of the last of the great romantic pianists from the old tradition. The ability to sculpt melodies and harmonies in this sonically delicate but emotionally powerful fashion is a lifelong pursuit for many pianists.

Warming up for pianists

Posted in Classical Music, Music, music education, music instruction, pianists, Piano by Curtis on 12/22/08

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pianist-2In the same way that we can trick ourselves into thinking that a fast food combo meal will fill us up just the same as a home-cooked dinner, pianists can come to believe that a practice session or performance without a solid warmup is as fulfilling as approaching the task at hand with seasoned fingers.

But whether your milieu is casual cocktail music or rapturous Rachmaninoff, a good warm-up is always of paramount importance. Though I haven’t tested the hypothesis empirically, I truly believe my professor would send me out of the studio if ever I came in with cold hands.

What is the best way to warm up? Well, there isn’t any such thing; we’re all different musicians with different needs. However, the following program has worked well for me over the years, and hopefully you’ll be able to adapt it to your preference:

  1. Bach chorales (5 min). I suggest beginning with one or two chorales with which you’re familiar, and then sight reading at least that many more. Pay attention to balance, bringing out the melody, and highlighting harmonically important moving parts in the lower voices. Aim for a legato melody and well-shaped phrases while using the pedal sparingly. Nothing beats these chorales for getting you in a musical frame of mind—they are musical gems and their richness and motility make them superior fare to simpler hymn-tunes.  I have yet to come across an edition of the chorales online which is presented in two staves (for ease of reading at the piano); some excellent and thorough online editions are available, but they are in open, four-stave configuration. If you like that sort of thing, go ahead: it’s good training! Otherwise, I would recommend the Breitkopf u. Härtel edition of the chorales for pianists, available from the publisher or your local sheet music dealer.
  2. Major and minor scales and arpeggios (5 min). There’s no need to run them all every time. Just pick out, at random, perhaps four majors and a few minor scales of different qualities. Practice them hands together over at least four octaves, and begin very slowly, concentrating on evenness of touch and tone so that no notes ‘stick out’ with a harsh attack (this is much, much harder to do than it sounds). Then gradually pick up speed, and feel free to try varying articulations, including all legato, all staccato, and 2-legato + 2-staccato (dee-yah tah tah, dee-yah tah tah). Also, many pianists like to practice with the hands moving in opposite directions as well as in tandem. Be creative and make it interesting, but never lose focus on producing a world-class tone with a carefully calculated touch.
  3. Warm-ups for finger coordination and independence (5 min). A wealth of such exercises exists in the literature; here I have included two which I have found very helpful since an instructor at the Mannes College of Music shared them with me many years ago.
    1. Finger coordination. Here (PDF file) is a warmup in thirds that will really get your fingers in sync and increase blood flow in your hands. The hands mirror one another as the exercise ascends chromatically through all twelve major keys. I have precisely notated the exercise  up through several keys; you can pick up the pattern from there and continue upward as far as you’d like. Be aware that this will tire your hands quickly until you’re used to it, so take things slow and don’t continue if you feel fatigue. You can slowly build over many sessions until you’re able to complete a full cycle, and the payoff will be noticeable, guaranteed.
    2. Finger independence. Below is a graphic of diminished chords arranged to use all ten fingers—click it for a good view. Begin by playing and sustaining the first chord. While still depressing all the other keys, lift the fifth finger of each hand as high as possible (without pain!) and sharply strike the corresponding keys (the outermost notes of the chord) several times; then do the same with the fourth, third, second, and thumb. Work back outwards to the fifth finger, and go on to the next chord. You can continue upward by half-steps for as long as you’d like. You’ll find the fourth finger the most difficult, I’d wager, as it is weaker than the third but is connected to it by musculature. Challenge yourself, but don’t overdo it to the point where it causes pain, by any means. This is one of the most effective and succinct exercises for finger independence I’ve ever seen.

(click for full view)

Altogether, the fundamentals of a good warmup should last between 10 and 20 minutes. Anything less would be uncivilized, and anything more might risk overkill. More extensive warmups may be advisable in performance scenarios, but remember that the point of a warmup is not to be long, but to be thorough and effective. Over-warming will never compensate for unpreparedness, unfortunately for us.

Hopefully these ideas will have a positive impact on your rehearsal and performance. Comments are welcome! In a future post, I’ll share some practice tips—for both jazz/pop and classical playing—that have helped me become a more efficient, orderly, and expressive pianist.

Shoring up the economy and putting it on the right track . . . the jazz track.

Posted in 2008 Election, beat, humor, Jack Kerouac, jazz, Piano, political humor, Sarah Palin by Curtis on 12/6/08

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Alright. This is a cathartic post—I’ve got to quit watching this video, and this is how I’m going to get it out of my system.

. . . . . . Sorry. Ahem. Had to . . . take a phone call. Yeah.

It’s been popping up around the Internet lately; I tried to follow the trail in pursuit of responsible parties, but with no success. From CollegeHumor, via YouTube, Governor “Swingin'” Sarah Palin, here for one night only:

Man, I need a smoke. Wha . . . it’s already smoky in here, wow.

This reminds me of those old Jack Kerouac spoken word albums with Steve Allen playing narrative piano in the background. Assuming that it’s not Condolleezza Rice, of course, I wish I could identify the pianist, because s/he did an amazing job. I would love to see a whole series of these.

Bach Outside the Box

Posted in Bach, Classical Music, Music, music education, Piano, Uncategorized by Curtis on 3/19/07

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J. S. BachJohann Sebastian Bach (ca. 1685-1750) is one of the most revered composers in the Western tradition—ironic since, in his own time, his music was widely considered gothic and outmoded. Fifty-some years after Bach’s death, Beethoven called him the Urvater der Harmonie (roughly translated as “grandfather of harmony”); and the scientist Lewis Thomas once wrote of how we Earthlings should attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”

Any keyboardist with experience in Bach’s music knows that one of these “harder truths” is the transparent, exposed nature of his keyboard works. The lines are clear, delicate, and perfectly balanced. Even the tiniest instability or trepidation in execution tends to be amplified. And yet, in terms of performance practice, there is little, if anything, that is clear about Bach’s music—everything from such basic considerations as tempo to the finer details of melodic ornamentation is up for debate.

I have a good deal of experience in interpreting Bach’s keyboard music, and I’m decently versed in most of the classic recordings of his output. My relationship with Bach began in fear—when I thought of him, I pictured a marble bust possessed of the most somber and repugnant of visages. But now that I’ve gotten to know him better (in a process that happily continues to generate more challenges than it conquers) I’d like to take the opportunity to make a few good-natured observations about practicing and performing this demanding but warmly rewarding and three-dimensional body of work.

Practice Makes Perfect.

Yeah, yeah. But seriously—in the case of Bach’s music even moreso than that of the classical and romantic composers, it is supremely important to be methodical and deliberate with one’s practice routine. When approaching a piece for the first time, always take things very slowly in terms of rehearsal tempo and in terms of the pace of digestion. You will save time by learning things right early on, for Bach’s dense textures can be unforgiving and you may find deprogramming your mistakes to be discouraging.

Sublime independence of the fingers was Bach’s greatest asset as a performer because his music is almost exclusively contrapuntal in texture. A melody singing above a progression of block chords or a simple accompaniment figuration, while not unheard of in his work, is rather rare—you will be juggling multiple melodies juxtaposed against one another, and each voice must retain at all times its distinct identity and character. Carefully observe the values of notes and rests; hold the long tones for their full durations, regardless of what might be going on above or beneath them. Remember, each voice is independent; your hands are a choir in this music. If you cannot mentally keep track of each of these independent lines as you rehearse, chances are you’re going too fast. Slow down! You’ll thank yourself sooner than later.

Pay close attention to fingering. That point generalizes to practically all keyboard music, but, once again, the contrapuntal texture of Bach’s music will more severely punish illogical, jumbled fingerings than the works of, say, Mozart. If you practice slowly and cautiously enough, you’ll find that the most workable fingering patterns suggest themselves. It’s not necessary to have at your disposal an edition which enumerates fingerings for each and every figure—I tend to distrust textual fingering patterns simply because hands are unique. It is well worth remembering that Bach’s own fingering, from all indications in the historical record, would be considered in some respects unorthodox by the editors and pedagogues of today. In rapid passagework, Bach was not afraid to pass the third finger over the fourth, the fourth over the fifth, or the index finger over the thumb. All in all, Bach used his thumbs very little—but that doesn’t mean you must do the same. It’s just to demonstrate that there is wide latitude in choice. Find patterns of fingering that sound smooth and feel reliable. Those are the correct ones, whatever they might be. Don’t move on from a given passage until you settle the matter!

Ornamentation shouldn’t be a big deal.

Autograph manuscript of Two-Part Invention #8The ornamentation found in various editions of Bach’s keyboard works seems to be one of the most frustrating obstacles for performers everywhere, both novice and advanced.

A very great deal of what we know about how to interpret those pesky little squiggles comes from Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, writing in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing the Keyboard.) But much of this information is in turn open to interpretation, as there are of course no contemporary recordings—only texts.

The principles of notation were somewhat different and a great deal less standardized in Bach’s day than in Chopin’s, for instance. Compared to his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, Bach left relatively little to the imagination in terms of melodic decoration. His notation was more exact. Compare his ornamentation with that of Couperin, and you will see what I mean. He left more room for play in his slower works than in the more sprightly pieces, as was the custom, but generally Bach was mercifully clear in his intentions with regards to ornamentation.

I haven’t the space to go into great detail, so I’ll advise a couple of key principles: first, I recommend that you always begin by ignoring the ornamentation marks. As you become familiar with the melodic lines, you’ll likely find yourself experimenting with different types of figurations. If you’re unsure—or not feeling very creative—many editions make specific recommendations about how to execute specific ornaments. Secondly, remember that any interpretation, however authoritative, is merely that—an interpretation, a recommendation. By listening to various recordings of Bach’s music, one can “get the feel” of what baroque ornamentation is all about. As in most creative pursuits, first we imitate and then we begin to synthesize. But until you’re ready to tackle those squiggles, why not leave them be?

Tempo and dynamics are largely up to the performer.

Personally, I find it quite irksome to open an edition of Bach’s keyboard works and find the pages full of crescendi, diminuendi, accelerandi, and ritenuti. These are all editorial suggestions—please remember that! The fluctuations in volume to which the piano lends itself were not possible on Bach’s native instruments, the clavichord and harpsichord. He would have relied on registration changes and differences in timbre from one keyboard of the harpsichord to the other for tonal and dynamic variation, so any dynamic indications one comes across in an edition are, while perhaps grounded in good musicianship generally, merely editorial opinion.

Much the same is true of tempos. Becoming familiar with various recordings of a given work is especially helpful in judging tempos. For example, the picture above is of the composer’s manuscript of his Two-Part Invention Number 8, which is generally played at a very sprightly tempo—but there is no allegro or vivace written, correct? Traditions of performance carry a certain weight, but you shouldn’t be afraid to play any given piece at a different tempo from one you might have heard elsewhere, if it suits you. There are guidelines imposed in Bach’s suites of dance pieces, because they are dances in an established tradition—a sarabande is a very slow and stately dance, while a gigue is, well, a jig. Outside of these generalities, there is no real authority of substance on tempo in Bach’s music. Be creative! Be daring! Just be sensible.

Rubato—the elusive art of expressiveness in subtle changes of tempo over the course of a given phrase of music—is something that is widely regarded as out of place in Bach’s music. Particularly in his keyboard works and works for other solo instruments or small ensembles, I see no reason why this should definitively be the case. I don’t think you want to allow yourself the same liberty of rush-and-drag in a Bach fugue that you might in a Liszt rhapsody, to be sure; but retarding at the end of a phrase or giving the tempo a little push during the more harmonically tense passages of a piece should not be taboo. Again, use good judgment and refer to recordings from established masters of the repertoire. Wanda Landowska, one of the most famous interpreters of Bach in the 20th Century, once told a friend: “You continue to play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” While I wholeheartedly respect Madame Landowska’s musicianship, she was herself no stranger to theatric hysterics in performance. Let her play Bach his way. You play him your way. Actually, I consider that to be sound advice!

Special considerations for the piano.

Thomas Jefferson's HarpsichordAs we said, Bach’s native instruments were the harpsichord and the clavichord. He did try out an early pianoforte made by Gottfried Silbermann while visiting Dresden in 1736; according to secondhand reports, he found the action stiff and the treble too weak, and so he continued to use the instruments with which he’d grown up. He visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam in 1747, and played on several specimens in the king’s vast collection of the then-novel contraptions, remaining unimpressed. The keys would have offered much more resistance than Bach was accustomed to, and the wooden-framed instruments of the 18th Century lacked the sonority and clarity of tone that 19th Century developments brought to the piano.

Apart from their very different timbres, the most prominent differences between the harpsichord and the piano are that the harpsichord is not capable of dynamic shading according to the velocity of attack on the keys, and that the piano features a sustain pedal whereas the harpsichord does not. Many purists believe that, since Bach wrote for the harpsichord, when one must commit the cardinal sin of performing Bach on the piano, one should firmly cross one’s feet beneath the bench and one should never indulge in such follies as a pianissimo or a forte.

I find this idea absurd. Because Bach’s music is highly contrapuntal, and because its harmonies are based on transient melodic juxtapositions, I would say that one should be very careful about applying the sustain pedal—and especially cautious not to use it to “cover up” technical faults that can be resolved by the fingers! But, used sparingly and cleverly, I think the pedal can add a good deal of pleasant sonority and singing tone to the music. Just don’t use it to hide rough spots.

With respect to dynamic contrast, nothing can really be said that hasn’t been said already. The principles of sound musicianship and reference to quality recordings are all the guide you’ll need. I like to think that Bach, had he cared to familiarize himself with that upstart child of the harpsichord, would have taken judicious advantage of both the piano and the forte. Why shouldn’t we?

Why Bach? And where to begin?

Many fellow musicians fail to understand my enthusiasm for Bach. His music, particularly in the United States (for some reason), is often viewed as “mathematical” or “mechanical,” of the most value as technical fodder. I think that such a dour perspective is frequently an artifact of viewing Bach from this side of the Romantic era, and such prejudices are quickly cured, I’ve found, upon careful listening to great recordings of Bach’s music in various media. Those whose only experience with Bach consists of plodding through a four-voice fugue at the keyboard, those who’ve not heard Bach played masterfully by great artists, tend to be less inspired by Bach than those who are “in the know,” so to speak. Of course, then again, music is a subjective thing. No one composer or historical period of composition is going to appeal universally to everyone.

Aside from purely aesthetic considerations, Bach’s music has a great deal of historical value. No other composer has served as a primary inspiration to so many other musicians—Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Frank Zappa, and Yngwe Malmsteen were all devotees, among countless others of note. Bach is a composer’s composer because, through all of his work (and he was astoundingly prolific), he maintained the highest standards of craftsmanship while never degenerating into the realm of the unmusical. Even in his great Kunst der Fuge (“Art of the Fugue”), a dizzyingly technical exploration of musical theory if ever there was one, there is profound artistry and eloquence.

For the beginner just becoming acquainted with Bach’s keyboard music, I recommend starting with the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach; if this fare does not prove sufficiently challenging, I suggest moving on to the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and some of the less dense preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Once you’ve opened that venerable tome, there can be no turning back from Bach!

Bach sheet music online (public domain editions — keyboard music and much more)

Glenn Gould plays Bach (video from Youtube — wide selection. Glenn Gould played Bach in his own unique and often controversial style)

“God Is In the House”: The Mastery of Art Tatum

Posted in art tatum, jazz, Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 12/20/06

Art Tatum (1909-1956) was an African-American jazz pianist from Toledo, Ohio. Although largely self-taught, and despite his handicap of total blindness in one eye and near-blindness in the other, Tatum is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most astounding geniuses in the history of pianism. One of his solo performances reduced the great classical virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz to tears; and when Tatum stepped in to visit a Chicago show of Fats Waller, the idol of Tatum’s youth, Fats stepped off the bandstand, saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am just a man who plays the piano. But, tonight, God is in the house.”

Unlike most jazz musicians, Tatum rarely deviated from the melodic line of the tunes he played. Traditionally, jazz instrumentalists focus their improvisational whimsy upon the melody of the song being covered, but Tatum’s approach was to improvise new harmonies to support the existing melodies. While the amazing grace and rapidity of his technical execution seems the most prominent feature of his playing upon first hearing, his unique genius is expressed more eloquently in his harmonic inventiveness, in the extemporaneous manner in which he could completely change the character of a tune from one chorus to the next not by varying the melody but by adding complex harmonic structures and bouncy, asymmetrical rhythms to the underpinnings of a given song.

Because of his penchant for harmonic variation and for lightning-fast tempos, Tatum was not as successful playing in groups as performing solo. Many jazz listeners complain that his renditions are difficult to listen to because there are “too many notes” or because they lack the steady and overtly “swinging” rhythms of other performers of the period. While his work may not be to the taste of all listeners, Art’s original style and his meteoric but thoroughly playful execution will make him a pianist’s pianist for many generations to come.

Tatum recorded rather sparsely, and he developed his reputation not by touring and recording but by playing to packed small clubs in New York and Los Angeles. He was an extremely heavy drinker who preferred casual environments, and, sadly, he died at a young age from kidney failure related to his beer habit. Video footage of his performances is exceedingly rare, so a clip such as this performance of “Yesterdays” is a true treat.

More Chopin

Posted in Arts & Entertainment, Chopin, Classical Music, Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 11/28/06

Here is Chopin’s Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3; my performance still needs a bit of work, particularly in the more technically challenging middle section, but I have a horrible phobia of being video-recorded so this might be the best performance the camera gets out of me. Sorry about the mistakes and about the unfortunate sound quality. Increasing your treble and decreasing your bass might help a bit on that second count.

Of this piece, a technical study in bringing out a melody over a busy accompaniment that tends to muddy it—as well as an exercise in broken diminished chords—Chopin is reported to have said: “Never again shall I find such a melody.” Five-measures-long phrases are adventurous even for a daring dandy such as Chopin, but the asymmetry is barely perceptible. This piece is often given the nickname “tristesse,” meaning ‘sadness,’ because it has the character of a melancholy remembrance of better times gone by, the longing escalating into an angry panic in the middle of the piece and then returning to something approaching satisfaction in the final phrases. We might never know of what Chopin was thinking when he wrote this little jewel, but the emotional progression is made quite tangible thanks to his pen.

A Piece of Chopin

Here, from yours truly, is a performance of Chopin’s Mazurka in G minor, Op. 17, No. 1. Let me tell you—you have to attend some pretty fancy music schools to learn to bob your head to and fro this way, and they also teach you how to grow your bangs just so. Actually, I didn’t even realize I did that. But the camera doesn’t lie, apart from the spooky strobe-light effect for which I can offer no legitimate explanation. And who doesn’t love playing Chopin in baggy street clothes? Tuxes be damned. Seriously.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer of French and Slavic ancestry. He spent virtually his whole career among the artsy folk in Paris in a sort of self-imposed exile from his homeland, which had in his youth become largely property of the Czar. The mazurka is a Polish folk dance which Chopin raised to the level of an art form—it is in triple meter like the waltz. But whereas the waltz is usually felt with a strong emphasis on 1 or 3—ONE two three, or one two THREE, the mazurka usually accentuates the second of the three beats in each bar. The melodies and harmonies of the mazurka are also more typically Eastern than befits the Teutonic mirth of a good, rowdy Viennese walzer. This particular example is neither lengthy nor technically difficult, but it’s a beautifully wistful and consummately Slavic melody that is always a pleasure to play.

The family cockatiels sure seem to like it, as you might hear in the background.