I have been encouraged to write on some of my recent programmes I have compiled and presented in the same manner that I present them. Here is the first! There are also Youtube clips to the same content as I will be playing. The current Gershwin, Debussy and Chopin writes-up will follow shortly!
20 WONDERFUL (BUT NOT SO POPULAR) PIANO SOLOS.
Some time ago I presented ’20 Popular Piano Solos’. This was a collection of many of the best-known ‘hit’ classics in one programme. 'Rustle of Spring’, ‘Rondo all’ turca', ‘Moonlight Sonata’, 'Clair de lune' were all included. Each of that selection is memorable not only because of their easy to remember titles but also due to their defined moods. They are also more or less playable by the average pianist.
I am fascinated by the breadth of the piano repertoire! Not only by the standard classical repertoire penned by composers of great genius (who also wrote less important minor compositions) but also the music of lesser-known composers, as well as the huge repertoire of tango music, salon music, ragtime, and even contemporary popular pianos writings, and film music.
In ’20 Wonderful (but not so popular) Piano Solos' I hope to offer audiences many undiscovered gems, music that is no less appealing but may not have the most memorable titles, or may not be heard regularly in the traditional concert hall. [In hind sight I realize this title was somewhat self-defeating. Who would bother to play or listen to '20 Rubbish Piano Solos’! So in fact '20 Amazing (but less familiar) Piano Solos may be a more accurate description!]
Through the concerts, and addition of this page, I hope that listeners may discover new sounds, new composers and new compositions they will be drawn to, music that will appeal to their particular ear, and music they may even want to play themselves.
This is also one of the programmes I have compiled and intend to continue to present this year 2018 and in years to come.
20 WONDERFUL (BUT NOT SO POPULAR) PIANO SOLOS.
Pavane: The Earl of Salisbury - William Byrd
Aria from Goldberg Variations - JS Bach
The Harmonious Blacksmith - GF Handel
Improvisation No 15 (Hommage a Edith Piaf) - Francis Poulenc
Valse d’or - Heitor Villa Lobos
Automne - Cecile Chaminade
The Easy Winners - Scott Joplin
Menuet al’ Revescio - FJ Haydn
Toccatina - Matyas Sieber
Romance - Franz Liszt
Pirates of the Caribbean - Radnich / Zimmerman
Hungarian Melody - Franz Schubert
Rondo in D - WA Mozart
Porz goret from Eusa - Yann Tiersen
El ciebo - Carlos Guastavino
Gold over Blue - Ernesto Nazareth
English Country Gardens - Percy Grainger
The Lark - Glinka/Balakirev
Etincelles - Moritz Moskowski
Hungarian Rhapsody No 6 - Franz Liszt
I start the program with music from beyond the common practice period. It astounds me that the standard piano repertoire ‘begins’ with three big names - JS Bach, Domenico Scarlatti and GF Handel, all of whom are born in the same year - 1685. How odd is that! But keyboard music from before 1685 does exist of course. A beautiful Pavane, a stately court dance, by William Byrd (1538-1623) brings simple yet fragrant sounds of 16th century England to the mix. The 'Pavane: The Earl of Salisbury' has a unique 'old English' feel. I couple this with the Aria (air or song) from Bach’s 'Goldberg Variations'. We know Bach was paid to write music for a court musician Johan Goldberg to play to his employer who was suffering from insomnia. The music was intended to entertain the Count during sleepless nights with erudite musical play, or ease him into a restful slumber. Bach’s magnificent 30 variations, which subsequently become one of the monuments of the pianos repertory, are not included in my performance. But the delicately ornamented aria, with its steadily descending bass-line, and is certainly beguiling. Bach’s second wife was fond of it too and wrote it out in her own keyboard play book. The last of the opening three numbers I play here is Handel’s ’Air and variations' on a theme, known as ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. If you believe 'The Ladybird Book of Great Composers Volume 2' (as I did) you would know that one day Handel, after he had moved to England from Germany, was walking down a street in London and entered a blacksmith's workshop to escape a sudden summer shower. Here he encountered a blacksmith happily beating away at his anvil while whistling a merry tune. So entranced was Mr. Handel by the melody he heard that he rushed home and wrote down this merry tune, later composing a sequence of variations on it. These variations gather in brilliance as the melody is adorned with ever increasing groups of notes. Later research tells us this is all a myth and totally untrue. But truth is not everything. I prefer the fanciful version!
French composer Francis Poulenc composed '15 Improvisations’ in his life. The last of these he wrote (or improvised) as a ‘Hommage a Edith Piaf. Piaf, probably France’s greatest musical icon at the time, and Poulenc, certainly of the country's most celebrated composers of his day, never met; in France, in Paris or even in New York where they both lived at the same time. Poulenc’s music may in some way pay reference to one of Piaf’s iconic numbers ‘Autumn Leaves’ with its similar wistful nature and quickly changing chord progressions. Another similar 'sweetening' chord progression is to be found in the plaintive waltz 'Valse d’or' by Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. Contrasted episodes featuring a driven, rhythmic style heighten the repeated aching melody of the opening waltz section. The ever increasing intervals in the melody are particularly haunting. The music of Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944), a French female composer, is not often heard on public stages nowadays but her most celebrated composition 'Automne' beautifully captures the changing seasonal colours and moods.
The music of Scott Joplin is always a winner. The toe-tapping march rhythms and off-beat syncopations of melody and right hand chords strike a unique note with audiences. ‘The Easy Winners', not one of his most famous compositions, adds a highly infectious feel-good mood to the selection. Franz Joseph Haydn is said to be know known for his humour in music. It has also been said that humour is one of the most difficult and rarest of emotions to portray in ‘art’ music! The glint in the eye of Haydn can be seen in this quaint Minuet. Charming and simple, the clue is in the title -'all rovescio’: the melody is in fact played forward, and then repeated exactly, in reverse. I enclose a score clip to prove it! In the manuscript score he didn’t even wore it out in reverse - just instructed the player to play the same backward - minuet and trio by turn. A tiny composition by Hungarian composer Matyas Sieber ’Toccatina’ last 30 secs or so. I learnt this as an 11-year old and it still resides in my memory quite clearly. The composer visited South Africa in 1960 and sadly was killed in the Kruger National Park, in a car accident. (No video available.) This brings us to Franz Liszt and the first of two works on the programme from the composer. Always expecting barn-storming virtuosity from Liszt, audiences are surprised to hear this haunting 'Romance'. A rarely played youthful composition of great delicacy that even Liszt himself had forgotten about (only published in 1908) the repeated refrain of the chord of the minor fourth chord adds a heartfelt and very tentative note. Last on this list, and in a stroke of abandonment, is a version of one of the most recognized and often performed contemporary film scores, 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. Here is the arranger himself playing in the clip. It is quite an athletic accomplishment!
Franz Schubert left Vienna for two unhappy summer holidays at the Esterhazy palace, now in Hungary. Here he spent much time composing and was exposed to a new sounds of ‘Hungarian’ folk music or as some would say ‘gypsy music’. This found its way into the 'Hungarian Melodie’, a short piece composed in his last years. The repetitive rhythms, not usually heard in music of the time, and unique gestures combined with great simplicity is beguiling. (The piece was not published until more than 100 years after his death. The video below includes a number of performances for easy comparison of interpretation!) I like the way this ‘speaks’ to Yann Tiersen’s music. The French pianist, with a background in rock/pop and film music, wrote a new set of piano solos or an album ‘Eusa’ in 2016 inspired by places in the new home on islands of Brittany off the coast of France. Tiersen creates a unique sound and mysterious, delicate atmosphere. Mozart's Rondo in D, not often heard in the concert hall, is one of the pieces you will not find in the two great volumes of Mozart’s Complete Piano Sonatas (as they are usually published) but in additional volume, not so readily available, of single pieces and fragments. The title Rondo is referring to the musical geography where the opening melody returns repeatedly. This is usually foiled with contrasting musical episodes in between the returns of the opening theme, providing charming respite. But here the theme never seems to leave, re-appearing in a numerous keys, modes and ranges, from high to low! The often-repeated melody may account for somewhat uninteresting listening experience and lack of popularity!
I only recently discovered the music of Carlos Guastavino (1912 -2000) and was immediately drawn to the sincerity of his music. Guastavino, an Argentine composer, writes in a popular style and this 'song’ refers to national flower of Argentina. I love the beautiful dissonances and sinuous lines of heartfelt melody, while the repeated questioning phrases are most captivating. It is difficult to play and does not sit well under the hands! Also from South America is Ernesto Nazareth, sometimes called the 'Scott Joplin' or 'Chopin' of South America. He composed Brazilian tangos and in other nationalistic rhythms. This particular melody I recall discovering on LP record from the local municipal music library, where I discovered many piano gems for the first time! I recognized it immediately as a familiar theme tune for a radio programme on national radio (Springbok Radio) in 1970s that aired every Saturday morning. (Was it ‘Swap Shop’?!) Its lazy rhythm and loosely bubbling style was captivating and only years later did I manage to track down the score. This fits beautifully under the hands and plays itself quite magnificently, much in the same way Chopin’s music, with figured patterns of melody, does. The last of the three pieces which bring together music from different continents is Percy Grainger’s 'English Country Gardens'. Originally thought to be a folk melody form England that Grainger collected, it turns out Grainger wrote the melody himself. It was popularized as a song in the 1950s but the solo piano arrangement, one of numerous versions the composer published, is quite virtuosic and physical. With octaves and leaps, up and down the keyboard and crossing hands while accelerating increasingly, it is an exuberant workout. (For those who are interested it is worth researching Grainger’s life from his native Australia to England and USA, and even a memorable stint on tour in South Africa between concerts in Pietermaritzburg and Durban!)
A melody which I was told has a unique place in the hearts of the Russian people is 'The Lark', a romance by Glinka. Arranged for solo piano by Balakiriv it is a heartfelt and deeply emotional piece that combines, in this version, beautiful pianistic colours with simple, folk-like melody. The combination of the various thematic motives into a ‘kneaded dough’ of melody and fragments is beguiling but not as bewitching as the cascades of sounds into the resolving major key in the finals moment. It is a piece that holds great weight and depth for those who hear its unique message.
I end with two concerts pieces; one light and effervescent and the other a pounding drama! Moskowski’s ‘Etincelles’ or ‘Sparks’ explores very natural hand positions and scale patterns that fly from under the hands in a compactly, spontaneous and almost ‘self-creating’ way. The lightness and control of the sound-space is the captivating difficulty in this music that often would be placed as an encore in the hands of only the most virtuoso pianists. And similarly Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 6, is not unknown, but it is certainly not popular with pianist due to its immense difficulties! Comprising four sections the final dance start quietly and leads to the melody etched out in repeated octaves playing for pages at a time. Depending largely on the condition of piano repetition and one’s physical fitness it is an effective winner, when it works, and provides a rapturous close to the programme -with a bang!