Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Beethoven Piano Concerto #5, Emperor Part I--Technical Difficulties [more edits coming]

For some reason, before replaying solo piano in ernest last year, I didn't really regard Beethoven's piano music as difficult.  Obviously, I was very naive in that assessment.  It's true that on sheer note difficulty the Liszts, the Ravels and the Rachmaninoffs are on another level, but to execute Beethoven the level of difficulty is just as high.  Kind of like the deceptive easiness of Mozart.  Only, in Beethoven, you do actually have very difficult passages.  Like the following.

Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, 1st mvt, difficult LH [look up measure #]

Having talked to a few people, it sounds like the above really is a hard passage, exceeding the difficulty of Chopin's Revolutionary etude.  So often, in Beethoven's piano music, he just sticks in a passage where the notes are just so awkward to play, at least by my standards.  The most notable example is probably the descending octaves in the final movement of the Waldstein sonata.  Just how do you play them?

But mostly, since Beethoven is a great pianist himself, they're not anything he didn't think pianists couldn't manage.  They're just things that require some time to work out.  Like these couple of other spots:

[1st mvt coda passage]

[3rd movement passage 6 against 2 in RH passage]

There are still plenty of difficult passages in this concerto, but the ones above are the ones I have the most trouble with.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, K271, 3rd Mvt.

I'm performing this piece in public tomorrow night, after 3 weeks of learning it.  Actually, after the first week, I was already sick of it beyond description, so I more or less took a week off, but the last week I just really haven't been practicing that much.

I'm bad at memorizing, partly because I rarely sink any real effort in it, partly because I'm good at reading music (reading and memorizing tend to be anti-correlated, from my small sample size).  It's a public concert, but it's pretty informal, so I don't really have much pressure performing the piece from memory.  I will be playing with an 8-piece "orchestra"--2 oboes, 2 horns, 4 strings--and in fact it's precisely because of this constraint I picked a movement from an early Mozart concerto.

Still, it appears that I have overestimated my ability to learn a 10-minute piece in 3 weeks.  At the time, I thought, it's Mozart, I learn fast, I have nimble fingers, I'll be fine.  Well, yes and no, as it turns out.  The Yes'es:

- Mozart isn't too difficult technically
- it's a concerto, so 10 minutes is more like 7 minutes or so.
- no need to memorize means far less pressure.

The No's:

- to pull off a good Mozart still takes lots of refinement technically.
- not enough time for me to come up with more interpretation ideas.
- a practical matter: I get sick of practicing the same piece.  So 3 weeks is more like 2 weeks because I did end up basically taking a week off.  And the last few days I can't make real adjustments anyway.  So it's more like 10 days of practicing.

Anyway, this post is more about specific interpretation issues, ideas, and technical issues.  Let's jump right in.

(1) Tempo.
  It's marked Presto, an uncommon marking for Mozart.  Though apparently, it's marked Molto Allegro in the Salzberg performance material.  Anyway, it's fast, if not very fast.  But just how fast?  Listening to recordings, Uchida plays at a breakneck speed, Haskil a little slower, Brendel the slowest.  The average is probably around MM=152.  I find 152 a tad too fast for some passages, but 144 to be a tad too slow.  If my metronome gives me 148 I'll probably be happy.

(2) Main Theme
  This comes up multiple times, I wonder if I should play it differently each time.  But there are more specific issues:
Measures 1-7.
  I don't really like the fingering I use here, in the cyan box.  The D played by the thumb tend to be a bit heavy, the F by the picky a tad light and short.  I need to correct for these issues by playing them lighter or heavier.
  I also don't really like how I shape the theme: Eb, Eb-F-Eb, Eb-F-etc.  The left hand plays a big role, I believe, but I don't know just how much weight to put there.  It's just I-V-I etc, yet it's still quite engaging and interesting.  And should I accent the LH pickup, or on the 1st beat?  They're decisions I can't seem to settle on.
  This theme comes up many times, so I wish I have a solution by now.
(3) Descending Broken Thirds
  So, my scales aren't bad.  They also reasonably even.  So it's not like I can't pull off descending broken thirds... but for performance, I wish I had more time to do a better job:
Measures 401-408.  Ignore the long phrasing mark--it's not urtext.
  The problem is that, I can't guarantee I won't miss a note here and there playing this passage.  Probably just 75% of the time--and that's when practicing at home.  Another issue is the control and phrasing.  As I'm descending, should I place a little more emphasize on the thumb, something for the audience to listen to?  Or should I treat it more like broken thirds, which sounds mechanical?  My evenness and steady phrasing also requires more refinement here, since a couple notes will jump out if it's not completely under control.  This is what I mean when I say technically it's not hard, to pull it off with at a high level requires a lot more work than meets the eye.

There are loads of other things I haven't decided on.  Maybe I'll expand on this in a later post.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Search for a Sonata

The past year or so I've played/learned/revisited/picked up the following pieces:

- Chopin Piano Trio
- Chopin Polonaise Op. 53
- Beethoven WoO 32 Variations
- Mozart Sonata K 330
- Bach Toccata in D minor (BWV 911)
- a Scarlatti sonata
- Shostakovich 2nd concerto
- Rachmaninoff Etude 39/6
- Paganini Liszt Etude #3, #4

So I'm missing a sonata that qualifies as a relatively big work.  I'm planning on at some time down the road taking one of those ABRSM exams, and I'm thinking I might as well use this sonata to fulfill one of those requirements.  So technically, it has to be a piece that is relatively advanced.

I've had my mind se ton Prokofiev #7 for a while now, but tonight I wavered a little; and listened to a few other sonatas:

- Shostakovich #1 and #2.
    I like #2 better, and I'm sure I'll grow to love both of these sonatas, at this moment I can't say I love them.  There also don't have a clear melody or motif that an audience can readily identify.
- Barber Sonata
   I thought I liked this, but I guess I didn't like the 1st movement.  The 2nd movement is awesome.  Anyway, since learning any one of these big sonatas takes a lot of effort, I don't want to play something that has an entire movement that I might struggle to fall in love with.
- Alkan Sonata, Solo Piano Concerto
  Great works--but too difficult.  I really like them, just that they're take too long to learn.  Especially the solo piano concerto--outstanding.  Also, I'll probably injure myself before I learn these pieces.

So Prokofiev #7 it is!  I like #6 quite a bit too, especially the last movement.  But while I love "bangy" music, #6 is a little too bangy for me at the moment--I want to develop my musicianship some more, and I feel #7 has more room for me to shape and phrase musical ideas and lines in the context of atonal and slightly bangy music, whereas #6 has more of a bangy element (at least the 1st movement).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Left Hand 4th Finger

Most of us don't have strong 4th fingers.  That's natural.  Hanon exercises purport to train strength in all fingers.  But since most repertoire don't require a particularly strong 4th finger, your 4th finger simply isn't gonna be as strong as the others, weaker than perhaps even your 5th finger, which you can leverage for more strength by lifting your arm or twisting your wrist a little.

So, many pianist train to strengthen their 4th finger.  Schumann is reputed to have done this--and end up injuring himself in the process.  At the end of the day, the 4th finger does get involved a lot in the right hand, but not so in the left hand.  And I have realized in the last little while that my LH 4th finger is almost unacceptably weak.  I haven't practiced scales in a long time, and I noticed that I frequently miss notes when my LH 4th finger is involved.  So lately I've been playing B major scale to get it back to shape a little.

I'm not worry about 4th finger playing scales--I used to able to do it well, so after some practice I'm sure it'll be back.  But playing double 3rds isn't something I've ever been very good at, and the 4th finger prominently figures in that.  I don't think I practiced many double 3rd scales--mostly chromatic 3rds for some reason.  So that's probably another reason why my 4th finger in both hands aren't as adroit as they can be.

So maybe I should practice some double 3rd scales.  To drive this point home, Chopin's 25/6 is an etude I have such trouble with.

If I have trouble in my RH, it goes without saying my LH double 3rds are pretty much hopeless.  The good news is that they truly rarely come up, and when they do, it's only usually for a stretch of 3 double thirds, which I can deal with.

The bad news is... I'm learning Stravinsky's own transcription of Petrushka, and in the third movement (Shrovetide), there is the horror of measures upon measure of double thirds, the LH:

Petrushka, Shrovetide Fair, Measures 43-44
Oh, that is not something my LH can do.

Lots and lots of practicing will be required to get this up to speed.  Both in my right hand and my left hand.

A Note on my Viola practicing:

Not as much progress as I would have liked.  But since this is a post about my LH 4th finger, I'll just say that I am also having trouble with playing a full tone apart on the viola, when it's a 2-3 fingering (i.e. 3-4 finger).  It's an almost analogous situation on the piano--weak 4th finger.  So in a way, it's good that I'm doing these 4th finger exercises in different ways, because it's useful both on the piano and the viola.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Viola and misc.

Intonation is a bitch.

Pure thirds, fifths, octaves sound so beautiful.  This is what I found to be the most beautiful aspect of a string instrument yet.  I'm convinced of this after listening to a descending third passage of Paganini's caprice.  It just sounded so pure, so beautiful, so perfect.

So what makes the piano stand out?  I've identified one aspect of what make the violin/viola stands out.

I think of the color when the pedal is depressed, like in Ravel's music.  The lightness in French music, the etherealness of those music.

And the sound you can make on a piano that imitates bells.  It truly reverberates and you are free to imagine anything that you want to associate with it.

Those are special effects.

Polyphony is another thing you pretty can only do on the piano.  You can immerse yourself in your playing; but I'm not sure if listeners will be immersed as much.

Percussive passages are also quite effective--I think of Prokofiev's war sonatas.

I'm sure other things will come to mind given time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Viola

So as it turns out, I did end up renting a viola.

Kind of fun.  But as my Stewart shows me exercises beginner violinists do, it reminds me of exercises I did as a child.

Needless to say, I do not want to go through those kind of exercises again!

I'll try not to take shortcuts, but I'll probably end up doing just that... oh well.

It's been fun learning the viola.  I am using Cavallini's viola method downloaded from IMSLP.  My fingers on the C string always seem to be touching the G string, which is a problem.  I end up having to twist my arm quite a bit.

But I'm no where close to playing anything real.  Vibrato seems to a long way away.  And I don't even know how to shift positions yet.

Oh yeah, I haven't even figured out how to be in tune yet.  In root position (1st position?).

A loooong way away.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Learning the Viola?

A while ago I read that Horowitz tried to imitate how string players play scales.  And that was the first time the idea of learning a string instrument came to mind.

Then the other day, I read that Mozart and Beethoven both played the viola at times in an ensemble.  And I thought, maybe I should pick up the viola!

What other reasons are there?  Plenty.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Chopin Polonaise, Op. 53, Part III

Finally, I can play all the notes without mistake.  Well, not in the same run through.  So, I suppose, I mean for the purpose of recording studios, I can play the piece hitting all the right notes.  For performance purposes, not close.  For one, I haven't even memorized it yet.  But my memorization has definitely improved--even though I haven't played too much piano the past couple of weeks due to hand pain.  Which reminds me, I should make a post on "Retraining" and what I'm paying attention to in my "retraining".

Anyhow, now that notes are basically there, interpretation now takes precedence.  I've actually played this piece for Julie twice in the past 2 weeks, and she certainly had some pretty useful things to say.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Realization from Four-Part Harmony

The last little while I've been trying to memorize pieces by putting more emphasis on recognizing harmonies.  It's going at a reasonable pace, but given that I've forgotten most of what little I know about harmony, undoubtedly I am struggling in this, I'm sure, ultimately very fruitful endeavor.

I flipped through Schachter's Harmony text the other day, and of course, so many examples of "proper" chord progressions use example from Bach's chorales, which are mostly (if not all) based on 4 voices.  He emphasized a lot about how even the bass line needs to make sense, i.e. no big leaps unless necessary.

And now I think I realize why my grandma and Eugene told me on separate occasions that I need to pay more attention to my left hand.  I haven't been paying enough attention to the base line because I have thought of it as little more than mere chords that support the melody in the right hand.  But apparently, in a masterpiece--which is pretty much any classical music that is worth playing in modern day--bass lines are important.

Schubert's impromptu (op 142/2) was used to illustrate various V7 chord inversions.  These inversions allow for varied bass line.  I don't think I really thought of them that way before.

Anyway, so in addition to phrasing the top line, I need to pay attention to the phrasing in the bass line as well.  And of course, this extends to the middle voices as well.

All this requires developing a better ear, which I'm trying to do alongside also.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My To-Play List

Here's a list of pieces I'd like to play at some stage.  So this post is more of a reminder to myself.  Probably come back to this post over and over again to make changes.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chopin Polonaise, Op. 53, Part II

Starting to think about this piece a little more.  But musically, still haven't figured out many things yet.

But first, a few more technical points:

1) Measure 27.  

Op. 53 Bars 26-27.
So, in a previous post, I was undecided what fingering to use to especially the first turn.  I asked people on pianoworld, most like to use 4-5-4, the most natural fingering.  One person pointed out that Jan Ekier, editor of the Chopin National Edition, suggested using the left thumb to play the low F note for the F octave, which I thought, is a rather brilliant idea, since not having to worry about the following F octave makes the turn so much easier.

After some exploring, my current choice is the counterintuitive 4-3-4.  It works surprisingly well for me.  It requires a bit of wrist and arm twisting, but seeing this pattern only comes up 4 times in this one piece, it's not too bad.  5-3-5 and 5-4-5 are also possibilities.

2) Chord progressions in the right hand.  As an example:
Op. 53 Bars 178-179 1st beat.
The fingering for chords require some thinking.  I have been guilty of being a bit lazy and using whatever fingering comes naturally-est to me, but to improve my play, I need to figure out better fingerings.  Shown here, in the last beat of measure 178, is a sequence of fast moving chords.  I'm not sure if 5-5-5-4-5 is the best fingering at this point yet.  I'll play around some more and hopefully come to a conclusiong later on.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Horowitz's Teachings

I found for the first time something on Horowitz's technique and approach to piano playing.  Apparently he gave a couple of presentations in 1928 and 1932, and someone was kind enough to take notes on them.

The 1932 article is especially instructive.  Perhaps, I should read it every few days to remind myself what I need to learn--from Horowitz, no less.

More important, notice that these are all lessons he learned himself.  You don't become the greatest pianist of all time (or, at least, the 20th century) by just taking in what your teacher has to say.  You need to figure things out on your own.

Such is true in all human endearvors.  The greats figure things out, work on them tirelessly, and overcome difficulties.  The lesser mortals usually give up at various stages before reaching that level.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Chopin Polonaise, Op. 53, Part I

So I took a little break in my daily piano practicing, but kind of came back to it this week, after for some strange reason I'm compelled to play Rachmaninoff's Little Red Riding Hood Etude.  Plus a slew of show pieces that I can just perform in front of an audience when I need to.  These include Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse, Ravel's Albarado del Gracioso, Schumann's Toccata, and the Chopin Heroic Polonaise Op. 53.

The Polonaise is surprisingly easy to get through.  As a kid, I tried to learn it after hearing Horowitz play, but it was out of my reach, but I did learn the famous left-hand octaves in middle section.  Later on, I learned the chromatic fourths in opening page.  As it turns out, those were the hardest spots.  A few days of practicing ~30 minutes a day was sufficient for me to play in a class and get some instructions.

There are a few difficult spots I need to fix, some subtle, some not quite so.  I might as well document them:

1. Chromatic in fourth runs, third time through, switching from 2/5 to 1/4:

Chopin Polonaise Op 53, Measure 9
  The rest of the chromatics runs are all result in natural finger positions.  This is the only exception.  I find the fingering for the notes highlighted in cyan slightly annoying.  I can still do it pretty fast, but it becomes more detached than I'd like.  A little pedal solves the problem entirely, but obviously, I'd like to avoid that.  I might be paranoid--it could be the kind of thing only the pianist would notice in his own recording.

2. Pinky Mordents.
Chopin Polonaise Op. 53, Measure 26-27
The mordents in Bar 27 are tricky.  The second one is easy, using 4-5-4 and it comes out just fine.  It's the first one that's tricky, going up from a white key to a black one.  Still figuring out the best fingering here.  3-5-3 for the mordent, then jump to play the suceeding octaves?  Or should I practicing 4-5-4 for this.  My 4th finger is unusually long compared to my pinky, and it's quite awkward for me to pull off 4-5-4 here.  Maybe 3-4-3 even?  To be decided.

3. The scale.  Four of them to be exact.  The B flat melodic minor run.  If you know the piece, you know which ones I'm talking about so I'm gonna save myself some trouble and not make a figure out of it.

  Well, Julia Jordan said they shouldn't be pedaled.  All the masters on youtube agree, so I just really need to make them absolutely even, without an unevenness whatsoever.  I think mine's ok as is, but it needs to be much better to sound impressive.  Like Rafal Blechacz's rendition of this piece.  Of course, he won the 2005 Chopin Competition so maybe I'm aiming a little too high here.  But better aim for the moon so if you miss, you might hit the stars.