We talk about operatic singing a lot in the piano world: we are supposed to take bel canto singing as our inspiration for beautiful melodic tone and phrasing. Sometimes I think people take that too far, especially applying it to Mozart's piano music, but I find opera incredibly beautiful and I usually leave an opera jealous that I just can’t do what those singers are doing!
Most people will agree that Mozart reached his peak art when he wrote operas. As I understand it, that's where he felt his greatest strengths were too, or at least that's where he would have liked to use his compositional talent most. What I love about Mozart's operas in particular is the variety is in his writing, he's really the earliest composer to connect subtleties of style to the character at hand, or the moment in the plot. This is the element of operatic style that I think is most applicable to Mozart's piano music. I care less about long fluid lines and more about variety, drama and character. Mozart's Piano Sonatas ought to be mini operas and contain the same variety of style and characters as his stage works.
Given the number and importance of his operas, I thought I'd best dig into Mozart's operas as I dig into his Sonatas. I've seen a few, live or recorded, and played many individual arias. But there are several lesser known operas I know nothing about, operas by Mozart and the larger operatic world.
Thus, every other month I'm going to watch and report on a new Mozart opera, how it inspires me and what I'm most impressed by. On alternate months, I'm going to dig into either an older, rarely performed work, or an opera premiered quite recently, in my lifetime. I'm very excited to hear 24 operas, from a master like Mozart or those who follow him, and track how my feelings on the genre, and how opera can impact my piano playing, evolves.
First up: Mozart's Don Giovanni. My wife and I sat down to watch a production from the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival, available on Amazon Prime Video. Who knew so many operas are available to there?
I love the world set by the overture; I don't believe I've ever heard this before. It's dark, and...sharp. The conductor doesn't shy away from the edges with sharp accents, so you get a sense of the “black comedy” aspect of this story right in the first minutes, before anyone has sung a note.
Mozart doesn't shy away from chaos; that was my sense of the very first appearance of the title character. There is so much polyphony between the three voices--Don Giovanni, Leporello, and Donna Anna--that you might expect a composer to avoid when introducing important characters. But of course I think that's the point. Chaos follows Don Giovanni and Mozart is simply making that apparent by stepping us right into one example.
Yet there is such simplicity elsewhere. When Don Giovanni is singing serenades, the melody is simple, smooth and easily memorable. Some melodies are fast and melismatic, not the kind that get stuck in your head but still passionate, such as Donna Elvira's long aria in Act II. Or take the Commendatore: upon his return in Act II, he sings largely in syllabic, repeated tones, befitting, since he’s now a zombie. Mozart is always adapting to the situation, and I'm sure there are many lessons from this when playing his piano music.
I'm struck in the famous Catalogue Aria (and many other places) by how busy the orchestra is. Of course, I've encountered this at the piano, but it's hard to appreciate how useful this is to the overall effect when you're on a single instrument (and trying to keep up). But I think this is key to the style. The orchestra plays a vital role in characterization, though Mozart lets the orchestra sit back in the accompaniment role often.
Similar is tempo. In Zerlina's Batti, Batti aria, her sweet, pleading, melody fits a gentle 2/4 meter for the first few verses before being transformed into a lilting 6/8 when she wins her husband back. Then Act 1 ends with such an accelerating ball of rhythmic energy, the frenzy of the situation is implicit in the music, not just the text. In this case, the meter doesn't change, and Mozart doesn't even change the tempo, only says to go faster.
This makes me question how much tempo variety is allowed in his Sonatas. If his operas are his most public genre, it makes sense that he might notate his musical ideas most fully. Since his Sonatas were much more privately minded, you might intuit that he wasn’t as careful to notate his musical ideas as well. Maybe there are situations where a drastic change of tempo is merited by a clear shift in rhythmic energy or melodic style.
Overall--I loved watching this entire opera for the first time. Mozart’s music is so full of life and energy, and I can’t wait to continue finding this peak artistic expression in his Piano Sonatas.
consistent control of everything: technique, sound, texture. But it’s much more predictable. It’s not even that it’s passionless: every variation has a certain individuality, but he seems more content to let Beethoven speak for himself, than Korsantia did.
Take the 3rd variation, very understated changes of register; both Korsantia and imagine sforzandos as if they were implied by Beethoven and Perlemuter has nothing jump out of the texture. The 4th variation, the right hand is virtually non existent, and it becomes an etude for the LH. In the 7th variation, written szforzandos are understated, he reads these as natural high points in a phrase rather than a sudden explosion of sound. In the 10th variation he creates a melody from the first 16thnote of each beat which isn’t much of a stretch, but makes it a far tamer variation than how I hear it.
Now in the 8th variation, this quality is such an advantage. I’ve spoken before in each previous post about the sound I’m after, and consistency is perfect in this place. I also love the shaping he gets in the left hand melody. It’s so hard to have a melody ofall quarter notes that still has direction and shape.
The 11th variation is so consistent that we don’t really have any staccato notes even though many are clearly marked as such. In the 12th variation, I admire his ability to so lightly shape the descending chords, but the interplay between piano and forte is so understated, you’d barely know that Beethoven wrote different dynamics here.
Several posts back, I spoke about different approaches to Fugues…Clearly Perlemuter is all about showing off the fugue subject wherever it is. I don’t mind this, but in episodes, where there’s no subject whatsoever, I find he quite underplays everything which I’m less of a fan of; something has to be the star. I really like the sensitivity to the shaping of the melody in the last ‘post-variation’; amongst all the right hand filigree, the melody is very beautiful.
(note: I've linked above to the entire album that this recording is on...the Beethoven begins on track 24, but you should take some other time to listen to more of Korsantia's recordings!)
The bass theme is played very strictly, with more separation, which I do like. Much like a Baroque style bass. I really admire how consistent he keeps this articulation in the following duets.
Oh-I love the cadences in the B section: I never thought of treating these so freely, or like a cadenza! What a fascinating mix of classical and baroque styles.
His a quattrois a masterclass in itself in style contrast.
I love his shaping of the repeated LH chords in the theme, there’s so much music and character in this subtle voice.
Variation 1-Great shading and subtle phrasing to differentiate constant 16thnotes. Variations with a single variation!
Variation 2- the variety in the first variation makes the perpetual motion of this one so exciting and energetic, not at all dull.
Variation 3- he really nails the style I was after in this variation, showing off the change in register
Variation 4-His LH articulation sounds like it should get annoying fast for its machine-gun like precision, but he has such long shaping in mind that it’s never dull
Variation 5-Again, he’s so subtle in his voicing, that you don’t realize he’s bringing out the polyphony until it’s happened, and you realized that although he began with a very narrow focus on the upper melody, he’s opened up the tapestry of texture.
Variation 6- I am so glad to hear a great artist be so flexible with the tempo…It’s not free, he’s just allowing himself to make music.
Variation 7- And again, he follows it up with a variation played very straight. I haven’t commented on all the cadenzas, but it’s worth mentioning here how impressed I am that he finds ways of extending nearly every single cadence in the style of the variation he’s in. Not to mention how he seamlessly works back into Beethoven’s text.
Variation 8- I spoke how I was aiming for a 3rdmovement of Waldstein color here, and he has that…There’s some smearing of the pedal but it’s very tasteful.
Variation 9- Props to focusing so much on the left hand where the melody obviously is…instead of the very difficult right hand. It may be easier that way!
Variation 10- this kind of near rhythmic dislocation is exactly what I’m after! Also, one of the most fun cadenzas, it sounded like we were headed to some modernism.
Variation 11- So here he’s rewriting the rhythm; the last eighth note of the first measure (and subsequent ones), is supposed to be two thirty-second notes, and a sixteenth rest, but he shifts the first 32ndnote to the end of the third eighth note of the measure…I love it though. It’s completely in line with the puckish character.
Variation 12- again, like variation 9, a master technician at work, this time particularly for how little pedal he uses. I do like a wash of pedal for the whole harmony.
Variation 13 I’m relieved that his tempo isn’t any faster here, but again, he makes so much music: the moving line, especially in the left hand is so well shaped. And props that he still chose to do a cadenza in such a difficult variation.
Variation 14- I love the voicing here.
Variation 15- in this and the previous variation, he a little more held back, just letting Beethoven’s notes do the work. That’s not a bad thing, nor is it bad that we get a greater dose of “Korsantia” in the preceding variations. I think it’s a true mark of artistry to show both sides in a performance: the performer’s own personality as well as the composer’s.
Fugue-relieved again that his tempo isn’t too fast. I’m probably a little slower, but in the ball park. I like how he lets little motives sneak into the fore, the spotlight is never in one place.
Post-Variations- I love the terraced build here, so when the 32ndnotes come the last couple pages, it really builds to a climax. That’s one apparent flaw of Beethoven’s in the piece…You get this crazy difficult fugue which ends in these climactic chords…but it’s not the end of the piece. These post variations can almost seem like a let down, but Korsantia does a remarkable job making this a true ending.
All in all, I’m astounded by this performance. So much individuality from the performer; it sounds so much like Beethoven, but I cannot imagine anyone else reproducing this performance. No amount of textual study to determine the composer’s intentions will create such a thrilling variety of musical moments. None of the variations feel like the one before, and the rather dull bass theme nor the repetitive form gets old, no matter how many times the same structure gets repeated.
I’m inspired by this kind of playing, not to reproduce it, but to find the depths of a piece so that I can put so much of myself into this piece as Korsantia did.
Following on the heels of my last two posts (one about how practice doesn't make perfect, another analyzing a recent Beethoven performance), it's worth noting one more thing:
All of our successes are a culmination of our entire lives up to that point, including successes and especially including our failures.
I mentioned in the Beethoven post that I'm quite terrified of performing fugues; that's a genre you can't get away from playing the piano. Here's the source of my terror: towards the end of my B.Mus in piano performance, I went through a string of performances where I had memory lapses in fugues. It didn't seem to matter what I did at the time, no matter how prepared I was, no matter how often I played without problems in the practice room, or for my teacher. I could not get through fugues.
Now, I know of several strategies to do better memorization work. The point here isn't how to do better practicing.
The point is that no matter how much better prepared I am today, I will still be worried about performing fugues in public. That makes every successful performance of a fugue that much more of an accomplishment. That makes every remembered note, every beautiful phrase or voicing that much more powerful to me. I think that playing on that knife’s edge allows me a certain kind of musicality that I wouldn't otherwise have. I would play differently if I didn't have that string of rough performances. Not better or worse, just differently.
The “failures” of my past make me, me, the pianist that I am today. That's the most valuable, distinctive, tool in my musical arsenal.
There can never be enough reminders: Practice does not make perfect.
I can never say enough: Practice makes permanent.
I'm so glad that someone decided to adjust that silly little axiom to say something vastly more accurate. The original wording is so wrong, so misguided, that I dare not repeat it verbatim.
We all need reminders that practice time brings us no closer to perfection or artistic or technical mastery. Practicing only reinforces what we're doing, good habits or bad habits.
It's worth noting though, when we have young kids that we're teaching, they can't innately comprehend the difference. It is so important that we help students and give them tools to make good habits permanent in their practicing. We see students for 30 or 60 minutes once per week (most of the time). They practice more than that at home and need to be able to work independent of a talented teacher.
But, one thing that Suzuki piano training has taught me, is that we have a secret weapon at our disposal: parents. If my student's parent understands good habit-forming practice skills, they can guide their student at home. Parents need not be able to play piano, but there are innumerable things they can do to help their kids practice better.
Parents can listen for balance between the hands. Parents can listen for a steady tempo. Parents can listen for hiccups in continuity. Parents can listen for an ugly note. Parents can listen for crescendos or decrescendos. Parents can listen for false accents.
As long as you give them a specific item to listen for in one specific spot, parents can go a long way to helping students make permanent, good, habits in their practicing.
This past year I learned and twice performed Beethoven's Variations and Fugue in Eb, Op. 35, commonly known as his Eroica Variations, as the theme of the variations is the same theme as the finale of his 3rd Symphony, also titled Eroica. This was never a dream piece of mine per se. A friend of mine had played it in our undergrads, and I heard Jeremy Denk do it live once. But it's not a piece I knew much about, nor one that I could "hear" in my ear (besides the theme). I knew it existed, but beyond that, my mind was a blank slate.
So last summer, I decided to learn it, and keep my mind free of the interference of other interpretations. (I discussed the problem of being influenced by recordings in my Artistic Messages blog series last fall, particularly #4.) I thought this would be an ideal piece to see exactly how much my artistic voice would differ from that of others: this is a significant, virtuosic piece by an iconic performer, but one relatively unknown to most people.
While learning the variations, I listened to just a couple people start the fugue to get a sense of their tempo, that's it. I didn't listen very long, and I tried to ignore all other details of their playing, beyond what I needed to satisfy my discomfort with my own tempo choices. Otherwise, to this day I haven't had any influence from other recordings of this piece. (Though full disclosure, I have played this piece once for my former teacher Thomas Rosenkranz, and twice for my coach Louis Nagel. Both mentors gave invaluable help and advice, yet neither works with me in such a way as to fundamentally change my interpretations. I see their influence as clarifying my vision of the piece or helping me reach that vision more efficiently).
Here's the very first performance of that piece, from my Choosing Joy recital in February.
Bass plus one voice: 1:20 area-I debated a lot whether to bring out the bass, or the 'new' section-the duet. Here I'm not consistent enough with either, though I do like bring out the difference: the duet.
Bass plus two voices: 2:10- I like the dialogue here!
Bass plus three voices: 2:45- I had a memory issue of a different variety in my 2nd performance of this piece too.
Theme: 3:25-I'm pretty happy with the phrasing here, though some of the passagework needs cleaning up. You need this jolly feeling here, but the arrangement and texture is really heard!
Variation 1: 4:05- It's so easy to over rely on the pedal here, but I'm glad that I'm not!
Variation 2: 4:45- of course Beethoven would make one of the hardest variations the second one. I'm quite happy with the tempo and cleanliness of the A section especially. I don't love arpeggios, but am glad it's in the key of Eb, and not C or F#. The mix of black and white notes helps a lot.
Variation 3: 6:09- there's a really tiny memory slip I'm proud to have played through.
Variation 4: 6:30 area- I've debated about playing different tempos in these variations, even with such consistency in sixteenth notes in these first four. But it seems to me they're so completely different in character, that I just need to "help" their differences a little bit.
Variation 5: 7:05- Tempo especially different here, I want to milk these juicy intervals in conversation.
Variation 6: 8:00- Just the week of the performance I was having major memory problems in this variation, so I'm glad I rectified it here. I'll take some unclean broken octaves instead. And again, success in not over-relying on the pedal.
Variation 8: 9:20- A precursor to Waldstein Sonata's finale. Everyone kept telling me to use more pedal here. I like the sound, but maybe will experiment with going further in this direction.
Variation 9: 10:08- for me probably the 3rd hardest variation. Playing these chords, with such short articulation, but still making them beautiful. Not a very successful performance, though the B section was better than the A.
Variation 10: 10:50. Actually one of my favorites. Besides the false, I like how it went. I'm trying to displace the meter as much as possible, each hand disrupting the other.
Variation 11: 11:30 ish. Another favorite. Such a mundane melody, simple accompaniment. I actually had a lot of memory problems in the B section while learning it.
Variation 12: 12:20- I guess tied with 9 for the 3rd hardest variation. My hands don't like to adjust to new hand positions so quickly, but then to play broken chords too, this could have gone worse.
Variation 13: 13:06- it's up for debate whether this or #2 is the hardest variation. I'm still not convinced about how to use the pedal here. I'd take this kind of accuracy; I only completely missed the right hand note once, and a couple other times it was a little messy. I could have slowed down a tiny bit more and no one should complain, but gosh I really want to keep the energy going like I did here.
Variation 14: 13:45ish- I wish I'd changed the mood more here. This should have been slower. But I like the voicing, and how I hold onto dissonances.
Variation 15: 14:42- Very hard to memorize, and to phrase. And to count. I think I found a nice balance in the A sections between the short phrase articulations from Beethoven, but still maintaining a longer line.
Fugue: 20:19- There's nothing so intimidating to me than performing a fugue from memory. My Master's recital had 3, including a 5-voice fugue. Listening to it now, it's been nearly 4 months since I last performed this piece, and I've read through the fugue maybe once or twice. It feels like a foreign piece! I can't 'feel' myself playing it as I listen, as I can with most of the variations. I'm impressed with the speed I have here, but I'm worried that relearning it is going to be very difficult! I'm very happy with a lot of the voicing and articulation, and besides a couple slips, the memory is quite good. This fugue is also difficult because it's so easy to play it all fast and loud. You want the feel of eroica, but without banging. Pacing is so important, and I feel like my performance doesn't get monotonous.
Post-variation 1: 22:42- I never feel like I have great trills, but I really liked the sparkliness of those at 23:27.
Post-variation 2: 23:38- My left hand melodic chords get very rhythmically monotonous, every repetition of the rhythmic device gets the exact same stress. When my right hand moves to 32nd notes at 23:53, I like the phrasing of the left much more.
Overall, I like this performance a lot more now, than when I did a couple of weeks after it happened. I think I capture the distinctiveness of the variations so that this doesn't feel like a long piece. There's enough sloppiness that I'm eager to fix and it's nothing that a 3rd and 4th performance of the work won't fix!
I've had teachers advocate slow practice, in fact, most of my piano teachers advocate slow practicing.
But I've known a few people who advise against it: our technique works differently at slower and faster tempos. Even fingerings can work at one tempo, but not at another. One of my former teachers, Paul Barnes, used the analogy that you can't water-ski under-speed! The alternative-because these teachers don't expect fast tempos upon sight reading-is to practice small sections of a new piece at performance tempo.
I'm sympathetic to this idea. Ultimately, I often have to catch myself, and many students, in getting 'trapped' at a slow tempo. Many of my piano practice strategies are geared towards practicing in small sections, and building towards performance tempo as quickly as possible.
But I do value slow practicing for pianists, in the end. But I always try to frame it this way: Practice slow in order to think fast.
If our fingers and our brains are slow, we aren't pushing towards the goal of perfecting a piece for performance. We're not ingraining it in our minds. We aren't doing slow practice, we're doing slothful practice.
If your fingers are moving slow, but your brain is moving fast though, you're still making progress. Your brain needs the chance to make connections between new notes, to chunk information into efficient modes of memory. Practice piano so that your eyes and fingers are working at a pace that allows your brain to do that crucial work.
I'm generally no fan of labelling "historical eras". Really, what does late Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach have in common? Next to nothing, in fact, in terms of texture, many of them have exactly opposing ideals. Yet we call all of it 'Baroque' music.
I find the "classical era" label most cohesive and appropriate. There is consistency of style and musical ideals from composers as wide as C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
But it's the "romantic era" label that really gets me: Romanticism does not mean expressive. I need to say that again, in different words: just because some music is expressive, does not mean that it is romantic. Expressive music doesn't automatically mean romantic music.
I could go on as to why, but I'll point you to two resources. One is an interesting article contrasting the historical philosophy of the enlightenment and romanticism. This isn't easy reading, but this extended quote is contributive:
Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.
Charles Rosen doesn't really define what romanticism, especially as it relates to music, is, but he does a great job discussing music that he considers romantic, and how these composers contrasted their work with the preceding classical era. Reading The Romantic Generation is a big commitment, but it is the most enlightening musical text I have ever read. Who are the composers who make the cut and earn the label 'romantic?': Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, a little Mendelssohn, Bellini, Berlioz and Meyerbeer.
I have no problem removing the 'romantic' label from Brahms, and Schubert, and even Mendelssohn. I'm hesitant to give it to Chopin (Rosen makes a strong case that Chopin contributed innovations to romantic sound, but I'm not sure he would suggest that Chopin is a purely romantic composer, like Schumann was). I don't think it's at all appropriate to Rachmaninoff.
Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff all wrote very expressive music. But to make not of this fact is simply to make note of its expressivity, not allegations of romanticism.
I'm very grateful for this article from Interlude writer Frances Wilson. She begins with the observation that most musical biographies seem rather formulaic. Venues, conductors, competitions and teachers. There are alternatives:
Wouldn’t it be refreshing, once in a while, to read an artist’s biography which was less a list of achievements and name-dropping, and more about the personality behind the dry words and the professional photograph? To discover more about that person’s musical influences, their likes and dislikes, what music excites them and why, and what makes them tick as a musician? Details that may not be found on the artist’s website and which might bring musicians closer to their audiences. In reality, most artist biographies tell us very little about the musician or musicians we are about to hear in concert and seem only to serve the requirements of their agents and managers.
I remember just before I made my first version of my website. I was nervous to do it: I was a hack! I didn't have major accomplishments, I didn't have a lot of performances to advertise, and why would anyone be looking for information about me anyway? I relented only to treat my website like a portfolio, but I still felt that its presence suggested that I had an inflated sense of my own fame.
Writing a biography was very similar. I couldn't create as impressive a biography as those I read of professional musicians. Even amongst many of my student colleagues, I didn't have the biggest named schools, or major competitions, or prestigious festivals to arouse audience interest.
Besides, some people's biographies come off sounding fake or contrived. "I studied with the student of a student of ___________ famous teacher." "I won some competition only 5 people heard of" "I made up a series of adjectives which have no objective value regarding my playing".
Then I read the book Beyond Talent by Angela Myles. Her idea regarding biographies was to tell your story as an artist. She suggested collecting 'raw material', any aspect of my career, talent, strengths, fun facts, which made me, me. What was the brand that only I could sell.
I crafted a biography which I used for several years (with minor adjustments here and there) that I was happy with, because it gave the audience context to my performances. My biography wasn't there to wow them, it was there so that my personality, my history, and my music making could emanate from the same source.
So no more hiding behind inflated accomplishments. I'm calling for a resurgence of honest biographies that tell stories. True stories.
(and by the way, I've been revamping my own biography. It will roll out in a few weeks, before the end of July!)
more active arms. You want big motions, big power, to come from bigger joints and bigger muscles. Fingers are really good at the small things: articulating. The arm, specifically the elbow joint, is really good at creating the motion needed for a big sound at the piano. The common wisdom says that you play the piano with your fingers. I try to emphasize with beginning students that the fingers are more than anything just a conduit for bigger muscles to transfer motion to the keys. Tiny muscles that they have, we want our fingers to have to work only as a last resort.
Obviously, this is complex language. When teaching beginning piano students, you don't want to overburden them with technical language. In fact, you don't want them to really know that they're learning at all. A fundamental principle in piano pedagogy is that you relate new knowledge to old knowledge.
What kids do understand naturally, by the time they're beginning piano lessons, is brushing their teeth. And unless they use an electric toothbrush, they understand that bristles on an old-fashioned toothbrush don't do any work themselves. But they're essential to brushing! Kids immediately and intuitively understand that it's our arm that's the source of motion when brushing their teeth.
So, I give them a toothbrush to play on the piano. It just so happens that the 'arm' of the toothbrush corresponds nicely to our forearm, the 'joint' of our hand holding the toothbrush corresponds to the elbow. The bristles of a toothbrush even look like our fingers hanging from our hand in a beautiful piano hand position.
I'll have my students play quite a bit with the toothbrush, then ask them to treat their fingers just like the bristles. Generally, they intuitively make the connection, they can play with quite a big sound, without pushing or forcing. Their fingers are more passive and their arm more active, and they have nice alignment as well as hand position. Throughout their early years, I can continue to refer to "toothbrush arm" as a technical tool for specific pieces.
This way I also never have to talk about their wrists. They innately understand that the "wrist" of a toothbrush isn't floppy, but it isn't a cement block either. Again, it's a conduit, a tube where motion from the arm travels to the fingers. They get that all the wrist has to do is just not get in the way.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act