Piano practice

I’m off on holiday next week, so things will go quiet here for a bit. I’m not travelling to any exotic destination, just back to the family home in Somerset. The advantage of going home rather than away on holiday is that I’ll be able to play the piano during my week off. Any habitual pianist will be familiar with the sensation of itchy fingers that comes from being separated from one’s piano when on holiday. Last year we made a point of booking a holiday cottage with a piano, specifically to avoid this deprivation. It turned out to be a pretty sorry specimen, but it was better than nothing.

I vowed to myself in a moment of folly that I would find a piano teacher this year. I haven’t made any progress (or effort, if I’m honest) on that front yet, but I have at least resolved that if I’m going to start piano lessons for the first time in ten years then I’d better learn some music first. I’ve made a start on this, and I hope to consolidate things a bit during my week off.

As I always enjoy reading about what the Cross-Eyed Pianist is practising, I will sign off for the moment with a quick look at the music I’m hoping to teach myself.

Bach – Courante from Partita no. 4 in D, BWV828
Spotify (Vladimir Ashkenazy)
I can play the first half of this but not the second, so I’ll try and make some headway there. It’s not up to speed at the moment. I’ve been playing it at sarabande tempo until now – I feel it works just as well if not better when played slowly – but I suppose Bach knows best. In one respect I may already be Gould’s superior – I’ve conquered entirely the urge to sing while playing.

Brahms – Intermezzo in B-flat minor, op. 117 no. 2
Spotify (Artur Rubinstein) / YouTube (Guiomar Novaes)
I’ve been playing this a lot over the past couple of months and have got the notes under my fingers now, but it still sounds different each time I play it – different emphases, dynamics, speeds and so on. I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing, but I’d like it to have a bit more shape and uniformity. With this and op. 117 no. 1, I’ve been inclined to play the first bit and give up when I reach the more challenging middle section, but I am now gradually reaping the rewards of the effort I’ve put in. One of the most beautiful piano pieces of all.

Chopin – Prelude in C-sharp minor, op. 45
Spotify (Edna Stern, 1842 Pleyel) / YouTube (Ivo Pogorelich)
It would be nice to be able to play a Chopin piece that is important enough to have an opus number all of its own. This has been in my repertoire, more or less, for quite some time, but I’ve never got the hang of the tricky little cadenza towards the end. It’s nothing more than a protracted downward harmonic sequence, so in theory it should be easy, but the chromaticism makes things awkward and so it needs some concerted effort to make it work.

Poulenc – Novelette no. 1 in C
Spotify (Eric Le Sage)
I was given a volume of the three Novelettes as a present by my piano teacher when I stopped lessons after Grade 8, and have toyed with them in the years since but never mastered them. The first and third are both exquisite, and not absolutely formidable, though Poulenc’s music is considerably less easy to play than it is to listen to. Lots of inner voices to pay attention to.

Ibert – ‘A giddy girl’ from Histoires
Spotify (Ginette Doyen)
This is a sweet little piece which it should be easy to get to performance standard. I remember waiting for my piano lessons when I was about 14 and hearing the pupil before me learning it very slowly. I was given the score of the Histoires as a present by my grandparents when I was only nine or ten, as my school music teacher, who was a good pianist, had played ‘Le petit âne blanc’ in class and I had loved it and wanted to learn it (and did teach myself to play it, probably before I was ready). I didn’t realise until later that this piece was one of the same collection.

Alkan – Preludes from op. 31
Spotify – No. 7. Librement mais sans secousses (Laurent Martin) / YouTube – No. 3. Dans le genre ancien (Olli Mustonen)
I may have a look through this volume of 25 preludes for my own amusement, which I have just borrowed from the library. I have known Olli Mustonen’s recording of the set for ages, and it contains some beautiful pieces, not all of them beyond my capabilities despite the rather daunting shadow Alkan casts over the world of pianism.

Charles-Valentin Alkan - watching over pianists everywhere

Anyway, I’ll see you on the other side. I doubt I’ll get through all or even most of this, but thought I’d make a sort of plan (and a public one, at that) to see how much I can get done in a week. Time will tell.

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8 Responses to “Piano practice”

  1. Becca F Says:

    Good luck with the lessons! I’m convinced that Beethoven wanted the final movement of the Moonlight Sonata to be at least quarter of the speed that any pro takes it. A bit like the Bach Courante you mention…

  2. Gareth Says:

    Agreed, and he also probably meant to put it in C minor rather than C# minor. A minor, even. Much nicer that way 🙂

  3. Gareth Says:

    Additions: I’m going to try and master the first of Szymanowski’s op. 50 mazurkas, which is both gorgeous and playable, and will be having some fun with Gershwin songs and Inghelbrecht piano duets (these are criminally unknown and likely to be covered in a future blog post).

  4. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Interesting and varied selection of repertoire, Gareth (thanks for the mention, BTW). My teacher always says about tempo in Bach – play within your comfort zone. And she’s right. I have resisted the urge to play the Toccata from the 6th Partita at a Gouldian pace (preferring Perahia’s more grandiose treatment – tho I do sing along to it!) and it’s a lot more comfortable under the fingers.

    Good luck with your search for a teacher. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to come on the piano course my teacher runs next spring? Enjoy your holiday. FRAN

    PS Alkan was an unusual chap, wasn’t he?

  5. Gareth Says:

    I believe so. I’d like to believe the story of his being felled by the Talmud, but I fear it’s probably apocryphal. Still a romantic way to go.

    It’s not so much that the courante tempo’s out of my comfort zone (though if I tried to go as fast as the more exuberant performers I’d probably injure myself), rather that it feels more natural to me played slowly. The mood is similar to the sarabande in the B-flat partita, of a sort of sedate expansiveness. When I play it, it almost feels like the notes expand below my fingers, even though that’s impossible with an instrument like the piano. Once you’ve played a note it quickly dies away, though I sometimes have the opposite sensation when playing Bach. Most odd.

  6. Mike A Says:

    I did an Ibert piece for Grade VI – Serenade sur l’eau – which is lovely and delicate and French. It was one of my favourites of that time, surpassed in my affection only by the Shostakovich Prelude in E flat minor that is more or less its polar opposite! I’m sure I pretty much massacred both of them, of course, but I did enjoy playing them.

  7. Mike A Says:

    PS your mention of Gershwin reminds me of something else I used to enjoy massacring – the Three Preludes (though I think I only ever tackled two of them). Splendid stuff.

  8. Gareth Says:

    I’m sure you massacred them very nicely, Mike. I’ve played very little of Gershwin’s music for piano, but there’s a really nice (and not too difficult) Impromptu in Two Keys that I can cope with. I must play more Gershwin – one of my favourite composers. I’ve had a yearning to play Scott Joplin recently. Can’t stand him really, but sometimes you have to follow your heart…

    Progress report: little to no progress on the earlier pieces, but the Poulenc and Szymanowski are coming along nicely, and there’s more lovely music in the Alkan than I’d remembered.

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