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.
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.
In 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.