A masterclass with Sir Andras Schiff

I really enjoy attending masterclasses, and if I can’t go, the next best thing is to watch on YouTube! With so many fascinating classes given by celebrated pianists and teachers posted online, one could spend weeks just viewing them all.

The following workshop given by Hungarian concert pianist Sir András Schiff, was recorded last November and it focuses on the first movement of my favourite Beethoven piano concerto; No 3 in C minor Op. 37, which was written in 1800 and first performed by Beethoven on April 5th 1803.

This class was filmed at The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel-Aviv, Israel. Shay Sluzki is the soloist and Tal Samnon is the accompanist. Hope you find this as interesting as I did!

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Stephen Kovacevich in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My fortieth interview in the Classical Conversations Series features celebrated American concert pianist Stephen Kovacevich. I spoke to him at his home in West London just before Christmas, and he provides great insights into practising, overcoming nerves and late Beethoven.

Stephen Kovacevich is one of the most searching interpreters.  As a pianist he has won unsurpassed admiration for his playing of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert.

Born in Los Angeles, Stephen Kovacevich made his concert debut as a pianist at the age of eleven.  When he was eighteen he moved to England to study with Dame Myra Hess.  Since then his international reputation has been built both on his concert appearances, renowned for their thoughtfulness and re-creative intensity, and on the highly acclaimed recordings he has made throughout his career. He has appeared with many of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors including Colin Davis, Hans Graf, Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, Simon Rattle and Georg Solti.

Stephen Kovacevich remains a consummate and insightful performer: After a recent performance in Barcelona in January 2014, one critic remarked “Kovacevich gave, without any limitation, the measure of a truly great artist” (El Mundo)

Performance highlights this season include two recitals at the Salle Pleyel Paris ( December 2014 and May 2015), an extensive tour of the Far East including Korea, Taiwan and China, alongside a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast to celebrate their week long focus on Brahms in October 2014 as well as recitals in London (Wigmore Hall), Boston, Dublin and Cardiff to name a few. Recent concerto highlights include a triumphant return to Montreal Symphony Orchestra (under David Zinman), Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (with Sylvain Cambreling), Malaysian Philharmonic (Jacek Kaspszyk), Orchestre de chambre de Paris (John Nelson) and Sydney Symphony Orchestra (Vladimir Ashkenazy). Stephen recently performed to a sell out audience for his recital at the International Piano Series at the Queen Elisbaeth Hall in London. In addition, Stephen is a regular soloist at the Verbier and Lugano festivals.

Stephen Kovacevich has enjoyed two long-term relationships with recording companies, first Philips and then EMI.  Great projects of his work with EMI include a compelling series of Schubert Sonatas and a set of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas completed in 2003, hailed as one of the most authoritative ever recorded.  One critic described The Hammerklavier as: ‘an unflinching, sometimes combative view of a titanic masterpiece, and a version to be spoken of in the same breath as those of Brendel, Gilels and Pollini…’ Kovacevich announces the music’s potency from the first bar. He also worked extensively with Colin Davis recording the Piano Concertos of Beethoven and Brahms and most notably Bartok’s Piano Concerto No.2.

In 2009 Stephen Kovacevich released, to unanimous critical praise, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for Onyx Classics, exactly forty years after his first recording of the work for Philips in 1968. The Financial Times wrote, ’a temperamental, almost explosive approach that resonates with rhythmic and nervous energy but also leaves room for elegance, wit and introspection. Kovacevich’s journey is always engrossing and never less than Beethovenian.’ This recording won the 2009 Classic FM Gramophone Editor’s Choice Award.

Stephen Kovacevich is a committed chamber music player who, from the beginning of his career, collaborated with Jacqueline du Pré for their celebrated recording of Beethoven’s Sonatas No. 3 and 5.  Other past and present partners include Steven Isserlis, Gautier Capuçon, Renaud Capuçon, Kyung-wha Chung, Truls Mørk, Emmanuel Pahud, Anna Larsson, Khatia Buniatishvili, Belcea Quartet, Philippe Graffin, Alina Ibragimova and Martha Argerich.

Stephen in action:

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:

Melanie: Celebrated American concert pianist, Stephen Kovacevich, has been performing internationally for over 50 years. He’s renowned for his interpretation of Beethoven, amongst other composers, and I’m thrilled that he’s joining me here at his home today in London for what is my 40th Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Stephen: Thank you.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you.

Stephen: You, too.

Melanie: I want to start by asking all about your education, how you started, why you started, what was the catalyst, and whether you come from a musical family.

Stephen: Music loving. Father and mother had a very good sound system. We’re talking 1943 or 44, but at that time my father had made quite a bit of money as a fisherman, and he loved music and so did my mother and they bought not a bad sounding system for the time. The first piece I fell in love with was Mozart’s 40, Fortieth Symphony and Meistersinger and Johann Strauss. Those were my loves. And then my grandmother had an upright piano and I started, you know, fooling around on it when I was 5 or 6. And I went to my mother’s choir rehearsal. She sang, and I was a rat, always correcting people for their pitch and this kind of thing. And little by little I started to play. I had an okay teacher in the beginning and then I had a good teacher from about the age of 8 or 9 in San Francisco. I studied with him until I came to London to study with Myra Hess.

Melanie: Right.

Stephen: That’s it, basically.

Melanie: Yeah. That was going to be my next question, which teacher or teachers were an inspiration and helped you-?

Stephen: Well, my Russian teacher who I studied with age 8 to 18, of course he was extremely important. There were some drawbacks, but he gave me the fundamental grammar of music and then Myra Hess was a different order of artist. I mean, she was an artist. You can’t say that about everyone who plays. And at that time I was 18, I was primarily stimulated by late Beethoven and the modest rated young man he is and I fell- I didn’t like Beethoven very much until I heard the Diabelli.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: A marvelous recording of Serkin, then I fell for the third period, the late period, and learning the Diabelli took me about a year and Myra, of course, knew it, but she’d never studied it. So, as it were, we learned it together. That period, they’re very, Serkin, Schnabel and Klemperer, involved and there were very few people who understood third period Beethoven and how it’s different from, really different not just lip service different, but really different. And that’s how I started my career at the Wigmore Hall with Berg, Bach and the Diabelli.

Melanie: Interesting.

Stephen: Yeah. So, with ups and downs that’s how it’s been.

Melanie: How did you develop your technique over the years do you think?

Stephen: Just slavery. I’m physically quite gifted, but psychologically I’m not really born to the stage and my Russian piano teacher didn’t help at all.

Melanie: Really?

Stephen: He was quite nervous himself, and so he imparted even more anxiety than I would have had otherwise. However, it’s been a lifelong struggle, and in the last 10 or 15 years it’s been much better. But in terms of the ability to play, just in the way that a lot of people do it. Just slow persistent practice. And I don’t know why, especially when you’re young, why slow practice enables you to play very quickly. I don’t know, but it does.

Melanie: Did you work any studies at all?

Stephen: No. I devised my own, because for me the giant is Rachmaninoff as a pianist and I love him as a composer, too. And he devised his own exercises and someone showed me some of them. Who knew that the person he traveled with, his piano tuner, and I didn’t exactly do those but I started to make up my own, apart from scales and things like that. And it does give you a grammar. And even today it helps, because about 4 or 5 years ago I had a stroke and I thought, “That’s it!” But after the stroke, I played very well and then something weird happened. Who knows what. They call it a TIA.

Melanie: What is that?

Stephen: Temporary isquemic something, and it took me about 9 or 10 months to get over that, and now I’m completely recovered, but one of the ways to get back your-

Melanie: Speed?

Stephen: Your feeling of competence is to go back to scales and things like that. And it’s boring as hell. [Laughter] but it does pay- I don’t spend that much time, but each day

Melanie: Right.

Stephen: I force myself-

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: I force myself 10 or 15 minutes and it pays off. It pays off.

Melanie: When was that light bulb moment when you thought, “I’ve got to be a pianist” or did that not happen like that?

Stephen: It didn’t quite happen like that. I played from about the age of 7, not very well. I played well when I was 11. I’d give really probably quite a good concert. I played the Ravel concerto when I was 13 at an audition very well and Schumann – I didn’t even think the Schumann was difficult. Can you believe that? And it is difficult! But, I didn’t know. You know, I played it at that time without inhibition. That’s very weird. I don’t know how that works, but there it is. And well just one thing led to another.

Melanie: You’re renowned for Beethoven. We were talking about Beethoven. Can you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to his music and especially your affinity for his late sonatas?

Stephen: Well I think I’ve changed my feeling about what I think he was, the subtext of his life in music, but for all those years when I was besotted by the third period, I always felt there was a subtext of radiance and some sort of inherent faith in life that came through. You get the same impression sometimes in late Mozart with late quintets. Schubert is not exactly like that. I think he takes it on the chin and there aren’t always nice endings. But now I think of Beethoven, I think he was still concerned with those things. I view it now as a hope rather than a certainty. And I just read this wonderful biography, which was of course was trashed in the Gramophone, by a man who about 10 years ago Jan Swafford, he published a book on Brahms, which is one of the best things you’ll ever read about anybody. I’ve given it to all my musician friends and they all actually worship this book, similarly this new one on Beethoven. I sometimes think it’s not the critics think something is bad and then poo on it. I think they secretly know it’s good and that is just what will make them go – certainly in my life as a performer, we’ve all had good reviews for bad performances and bad – you know, upside down – but the most surprising category is to be trashed for really wonderful performances.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Ashkenazy – I was really stunned and proud. I opened up a newspaper and there was an article he’d written to the newspaper, furious because one of the Mr. Magoos of the critical world – You’re too young to know who Mr.Magoo was. He was a character who bumped into everything. He didn’t what he was doing.

Melanie: Okay.

Stephen: Writing the newspaper saying that this was just complete nonsense. I didn’t know he was going to do it but – how did we get on to that? About Beethoven.

Melanie: Yes.

Stephen: Reading this book I now see that, first of all I didn’t know he was in so much physical pain all of his life. He had a lot of really quite unpleasant pains apart from his deafness and he was filthy. As a young man, he had quite a normal – I mean, he had girlfriends and he was apparently not attractive but he probably had a charisma, because there are letters from friends of his saying, “How does this ugly guy get all these pretty girls?” And that was when he was young. And then when he was 30 or I think, all that side, it wasn’t personal anymore, he paid for it. But what was sad at the end was that you had the impression that he’s just suffering and really horribly and that there isn’t – his last words now it’s been reported were, “The comedy is over.” That’s not the words of someone who feels that things have been worthwhile and it’s a statement of some despair really. How he walked around- You ask me why I love him, I mean, I don’t think I would like him as a person. But walking around all this music. You know at one point he had the 9th symphony, the Diabelli, all going at the same time. That must just drive you mad. You know, he would be seen on the streets as shouting and screaming and people avoided him. Sometimes when he was invited to a palace for a proper reading, they wouldn’t let him in because they didn’t know who he was and they thought he was deranged. I don’t think he – and he probably bordered on being an alcoholic. That’s right on the cusp, right on the cusp. Well I mean a genius of geniuses, but he didn’t have a – He had a hard time.

Melanie: Yes.

Stephen: But anyway this – I mean, the energy is simply absolutely astonishing in his music. You don’t have the impression almost, that’s why I dislike Fidelio so much, because when he writes with a voice – it could be for a clarinet. I feel no distinctive difference. And when Mozart writes you have a sensible pleasure, that he loved the voice. Somehow it’s human, not in an intellectual sense. It’s sensual. Beethoven is cerebral. Even his – even the opera, and therefore I dislike him for that. I feel claustrophobic. With the sonatas and the chamber music, there’s nothing to say.

I think, yeah. And I mean, Liszt, what I would’ve given to hear Liszt play the Hammerklavier, for example and he did and he played the one, the third and the fifth piano concerto. And Liszt wrote a very completely perfunctory cadenza for the third piano concerto. It’s so boring. It has none of the flamboyance that you would expect. Beethoven’s is actually, his own cadenza, is much more flamboyant than Liszt’s. But and when Liszt once played the Hammerklavier at one of his soirées – you know, one of the dramas of playing the Hammerklavier is the opening. I don’t know if you know, but it starts with a jump. To my credit, I don’t cheat. I don’t mind playing with the right and the left sometimes, but here I think it’s part of the music. So I take my chances. And most of the time it’s fine. But Liszt avoided the whole thing. Before he played it – I would have loved to have heard it- he did a kind of fantasia of all the themes and it gradually erupted – he improvised it – and then he erupted into [Hums music]. But of course that takes away the danger of [Laughter] of all people I’d love to have heard play Beethoven, Liszt.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: Because I’m sure and he was quite strict about metronomes. I do think that metronomes are a mistake in the sense that they’re – Beethoven, he couldn’t hear- so they were based on an internal ear. And if you ask me for example, “How does the Hammerklavier go?” I’d say to you, “[Hums music]” That’s approximately 138. You do that on the piano, it just sounds a bit silly, because it doesn’t have the sound, and that’s all he had. And he was also a control freak.

He was terrified that he would play too slowly. And so he would trouble his poor nephew with the chore of going, “Tic Toc- No, not fast enough! Tic toc, Tic toc” and then finally. But that way totally makes it very funny. He probably waited until the tic toc was as exciting as the music, and then said, “That’s it.” And against all that, the greatest absolutely in a class of its own, Beethoven performances I ever heard were Klemperer, and they were so slow, so politically incorrect. You can imagine he’d be jumped on by the critics today with their authentic Emperor’s new clothes, with one exception. I think there is one who really is a great musician. The others, I’m not so sure. But Klemperer, in any case was not that, he was funerial, but he needed it, it as authentic from him, for concerts with the philharmonic in those days were, devastating, it could be boring, yes. But whatever it was, he was just on fire in the right way. He was really quite frightening.

Melanie: Which of those late Beethoven’s do you really love to play? Do you have a favorite one?

Stephen: I think the one that is the most personal is Op. 110. That’s not the one that I enjoy playing the most. I think I enjoy playing Op. 109 the most.

Melanie: Yes. That’s my favourite. It’s beautiful.

Stephen: I often as a joke say if I could win Wimbledon, I’d give up all the Beethoven sonatas except for Op. 109. I wouldn’t give up 109 to win Wimbledon, but all the others, yes.

Melanie: Which other composers do you love to play?

Stephen: Brahms. I worship Brahms. Schubert. Schubert’s tough, because Schubert is not as lyrical and nice as people seem to think. He can be quite disturbing to work on, because there is no subtext of, you know, the good guy wins. I love Rachmaninoff, always have. I’m now learning some of his pieces and it’s an odd thing to say but I know his music isn’t as great as Mozart, but I love him as much. And my favourite concerto of all, of everybody is Rachmaninoff’s second and then Brahms’s one. And of course Mozart and Beethoven – but they’re not my favourites and – You can make it what you want, but one of the most ridiculously gifted pianists we have today sometimes comes and works here and she admitted that it was the same for her. It poses and interesting question, “What is great? Why is for me the Rachmaninoff second as great as any of them and more so in some ways?” I can’t tell you because you can’t defend yourself. You know, if you were being prosecuted in the court of law you would be actually destroyed. It’s not greater than K.595 of Mozart or K.491, but in some ways it is. And I also admire this man. When he was composing at the time, Stravinsky was there. Schoenberg was there. Stravinsky obviously hated his music, but they met at a dinner in Hollywood, and Stravinsky has the grace that was not his saving characteristic. He writes, “What an awesome man!” and from him that’s really the real thing. I’m sure he didn’t like his music, but he recognized what this man was, and Bartok was much more open. Bartok heard the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and he said, “This is genius.” And you know contemporary composers in the last twenty or thirty, it would seem they only feel secure if they have to trash their immediate predecessors. And it just shows you how – I don’t know what it shows, but it’s ridiculous.

Melanie: Yes. Yes. You’ve often said that nerves have been a problem for concerts.

Stephen: Yes.

Melanie: How have you managed to overcome or do you still worry about it?

Stephen: I still worry about it, but I have ways – First of all, I’ve cut down my repertoire and it’s been on and off all throughout my career. Sometimes working with the slavery that shocks even me and I’m used to slavery. I remember I heard Bartok’s second concerto when I was about 23, 24 and I thought, “What a sensational piece!” and I bought the music, and I wasn’t being coy. I can’t do it, and in those days I occasionally dropped in on Colin Davis and I dropped in and I said, “I just heard this incredible piece and I went out and bought the music. I can never play.” I wasn’t fishing. He was in charge of the BBC and he asked me to do it at a Prom 9 months later. Well, I accepted. I knew I could always cancel it, but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try. Twice during that period – thank god I don’t remember which hand – it was paralyzed. I couldn’t hold an orange. I woke up the morning and it looked like this or like this, whichever hand, and I had massage and a lot of treatment. The doctor who I was seeing at the time said, “Well, you can play the first performance. It’ll hurt, but you won’t damage yourself.” It did hurt. It wasn’t the world’s greatest performance, but I got through. The next performance was terrible, and then – you were speaking of nerves – the next performance was live and for a festival opening night. I was so scared that I couldn’t give the BBC – this is with Bartok 2 – a balance test. Everybody had to do it cold, just like that.

And I walked on stage with my speech of abdications saying my hand hurts, you know. And there’s two things that I find very difficult, one is on the third page and a lot of – even people who have much more experience with that kind of music – they wobbled a bit in these parts. It’s not important, but it’s very awkward. And then I had another problem a bit later, and I’d worked all summer on this piece. And Martha Argerich was sitting in the public with another pianist who died, you wouldn’t know him, and they knew about my bête noires in this piece, and when the second one came up, they held each other, and I got through it. And when I got through it I get completely ballistic. And I walked away thinking, “Now I know how to do it.” Well, no. [Laughter] Yes, I know how to do it if you want to work the whole summer on one piece, but you can’t live like that.

Melanie: No.

Stephen: I mean it was an amazing performance and the recording is like that, but you can’t live like that. If I could live my life again, I think I would probably do that. I would have cut out a lot of pieces and just slaved on the things that I did well. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have learned some pieces that I learned to do very well, but – nerves have been up and down. Sure, psychologists helped me.

Melanie: Really?

Stephen: Yes.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: And a young woman, I was one of her first cases in hypnotism. She was a violin player that became a hypnotist, and it did help but that’s hard work.

Melanie: That was brave.

Stephen: It was hard work. For it to work, you can’t actually be passive. Once you’re at the session, you’re passive. But when you go home and start working in the next week or so, it’s quite active and it’s tough. It’s really quite hard, but it did pay dividends. But then, you know I’m lazy as hell to do that. [Laughter]

Melanie: Do you still have trouble with it or do you feel fine now?

Stephen: I don’t feel fine, but I can cope.

Melanie: You can cope. Yes. Yes. Now, you love teaching.

Stephen: I do. It depends on the student.

Melanie: Of course, and you’ve written a scholarly edition of Schubert’s piano music. Is that right?

Stephen: Well, Howard Ferguson, who was a close friend of Myra Hess and a very good composer and a Bach scholar, but he did an edition of some Schubert and I just added a few notes. I didn’t really do much. But I have done a lot.

Melanie: What do you love about teaching? How do you divide your time? Do you – do you do quite a bit of it?

Stephen: People get in touch and if I know that they’re good.

They really don’t dare to get in touch unless they are good. [Laughter]

Melanie: I bet!

Stephen: And most of them I either know or know of. And even some quartets, I mean great quartets come here and we work on Beethoven, for example. And these are some of the best times in my musical life and if the pianist is – most of them are marvelous – I mean, a staggering amount of people come here who really can play. I mean, they’re not students. They’re the real thing, and those days are marvelous and it’s very interesting sometimes what you can release just with a tiny, tiny push. And you don’t even have to say anything specific. Sometimes you do, but a lot of young musicians have so much inside them that – You know, they’re Asians. They play 3 or 4 times a week, and they don’t have the courage or the sense to say no and then they wonder why they dry up. And then when they dry up, some of them collapse for a time and I hold them responsible, because a few of them are stars and there is actually no reason. They can say no for a year and it won’t make any difference. And then their agents sometimes don’t help. But I spoke to an Agent once who said that he does try to say sometimes and then someone rings up and the person says, “Oh yeah! I love to do that.” And then that week or so he’s gone. But I do think that – I don’t know if it’s true, but I read and I knew him slightly, Horowitz, He played 25-30 concerts a year.

Melanie: Wow!

Stephen: Yeah. Maybe at his peak, but his concerts were events.

Melanie: Yeah, absolutely.

Stephen: and also he didn’t find giving concerts easy. He was very nervous. Whereas, Rubenstein, he was born for the stage. I think Barenboim is born for the stage, but most of us are not. Other people are cool. That’s not exactly being born for the stage, but it means you have that knack of not falling off the high wire. But certainly Horowitz was not like that. Again, probably the most exciting of them all.

Melanie: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Stephen: There’s a price.

Melanie: What are your future plans?

Stephen: I’m learning some chamber music that I don’t know. I’m learning some solo Rachmaninoff and my birthday is in October at the Wigmore Hall. My 75th. I can’t believe, I can’t believe it. But they gave me my 70th birthday, and they’re giving me a concert. It’s not quite on the birthday. It’s a few weeks later. So Martha is coming to do the first half, En Blanc et Noir, some Debussy, and then we are playing the Symphonic Dances, and the second part is Schubert E flat Sonata. Could be good.

Melanie: Absolutely. Yes. Amazing. What does playing the piano mean to you?

Stephen: I don’t have an answer to that. [Laughter] It’s like saying, “What’s waking up in the morning?” No. I’d be okay without doing it, but it’s a way of – It’s the primary means of expression.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Stephen: Ok. Thank you!

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


A short post today, to wish everyone a very, very HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Thank you for visiting my blog this year, and here’s a special Christmas (à la Beethoven) medley played by pianist John Lenehan.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.

32 Pianists perform 32 Beethoven Sonatas

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas represent the composer’s life journey, both as a composer and human being. From the early sonatas, which are stylistically akin to those of Mozart or Haydn, through to the final six, which are amongst the most sublime works ever written for the instrument. They are often performed as a complete cycle but rarely heard altogether, although pianist Julian Jacobson (one of the pianists taking part in this festival) achieved this extraordinary feat last year at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

St Barnabas church in Ealing is presenting a major piano festival celebrating Beethoven, programming all 32 Sonatas over a period of two days. This is the third Beethoven festival at the church and it takes place on  Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th (from 2.00 pm to 10.00 pm) and the works will be performed by a distinguished team of 32 pianists.  There are afternoon sessions from 2 to 6 pm and  evening sessions from 7 to 10 pm on each day, with regular intervals for refreshments (tea and supper are available).

The church houses a superb Bosendorfer concert grand, used by the BBC at Maida Vale studios for broadcasts.   Concerts are held ‘in the round’, with the piano and musicians in the centre of the nave, so everyone is reasonably close to the performers (see photo above).    A state-of-the-art projection system will be in operation allowing everyone in the audience to see the pianist – and their hands – at close quarters, transforming the whole experience.

All 32 pianists will contribute substantially to this immense musical journey, from the first work, Op 2 no 1, on Saturday afternoon, to the great Op 111 on Sunday evening.   They come from all over the world, and cover a wide age range. Many have won major piano awards and enjoyed distinguished careers; hearing them play in succession on the same piano will no doubt prove endlessly fascinating.

Admission for each session will be £12 (£6 for students/young people), or £40 for the entire festival.  No tickets will be issued beforehand, so you can just turn up on the day. The church is very large so admission is guaranteed.    There is ample free parking in nearby streets.  All proceeds will go towards St Barnabas church funds.   The Church wants to raise over £100,000 following the installation of a new organ, so you can enjoy some of the most profound piano music and support a very worthy cause.  

Here’s the programme:

Saturday Afternoon May 17th
2.00 Kathron Sturrock F minor Op 2 no 1
2.25 Colin Stone A major Op 2 no 2
2.50 interval
3.00 Seta Tanyel C major Op 2 no 3
3.25 Aristo Sham E flat major Op 7
3.55 Tea
4.25 Veronika Shoot C minor Op 10 no 1
4.45 Yoriko Wakabayashi F major Op 10 no 2
5.00 interval
5.10 Meng Yang Pan D major Op 10 no 3
5.35 Maria Setiadi C minor Op 13
Saturday Evening May 17th
7.00 Julian Jacobson E major Op 14 no 1
7.15 Mariko Brown G major Op 14 no 2
7.30 Nafis Umerkulova B flat major Op 22
7.55 interval
8.10 Danielle Salamon E flat major Op 27 no 1
8.25 Tadashi Imai C# minor Op 27 no 2
8.40 interval
8.55 Karim Said  D major Op 28
9.20 Olga Paliy G major Op 31 no 1
Sunday Afternoon May 18th 
2.00 Andrew Brownell A flat major Op 26
2.20 Reiko Fujisawa  D minor Op 31 no 2
2.45 Dina Diusen E flat major Op 31 no 3
3.05 interval
3.15 Alice Pinto G minor Op 49 no 1
3.25 Viv McLean G major Op 49 no 2
3.35 Simon Watterton  C major Op 53
4.00 Chinatsu Izumikawa F major Op 54
4.10 TEA
4.40 Angela Brownridge  F minor Op 57
5.05 Marcus Andrews F# major Op 78
5.15 Aleksandra Myslek G major Op 79
5.30 Alexander Soares E flat major Op 81a
5.45 Gamal Khamis E minor Op 90
Sunday Evening May 18th
7.00 Jayson Gillham A major Op 101
7.25 Hugh Mather  B flat major Op 106
8.10 interval
8.25 Mishka Rushdie Momen E major Op 109
8.45 interval
9.00 Pavel Timofejevsky A flat major Op 110
9.30 Mikhail Shilyaev C minor Op 111

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.

A few thoughts on Beethoven’s Für Elise

This small seemingly straightforward work has become such a favourite with pianists of all ages and abilities. It is perpetually at the top of the ‘must learn to play’ list and is instantly recognisable from the first few notes. For many, Für Elise represents Beethoven (1770-1827), although in reality it’s of scant importance when surveying the Master’s output for the instrument. Perhaps it’s popularity rests on the fact that it is an easily accessible and playable piece, which is around Grade 5 standard. Several readers have written asking for practice tips and ideas, so here are my thoughts on this evocative miniature.

No-one really knows who ‘Elise’ was, and in fact it is thought that Beethoven apparently wrote this piece for  Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza (1792–1851). She was a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he proposed in 1810. Therese declined and instead chose to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik in 1816.  There are also several other dedicatee possibilities.

The original score was dated 27th April 1810, but the work wasn’t published until 1867, many years after Beethoven’s death. Ludwig Nohl discovered and transcribed the score and it’s the early version of the manuscript that is now the usual or ‘accepted’ version. Für Elise has become the official ‘nickname’ but the title is actually Bagatelle in A minor WoO 59.

The tempo marking, Molto grazioso, suggests a graceful tone and this should be strictly upheld; generally a slower tempo is much more effective. The work is in the style of a perpetuum mobile (perpetual motion or movement) so a gently flowing tempo allows the haunting melody to be expressively enunciated. Fingering needs careful attention because this will make or break any performance, so write it all in the score.

The familiar sections of this work consist mainly of rolling semiquaver figures; often widespread arpeggios in the left hand and a beautiful, simple melody in the right. These sections frame two contrasting episodes, both containing more dramatic material. It’s important to have a clear musical overview when learning; the form here is A-B-A-C-A.

Für Elise is in the key of A minor with brief diversions into F major and C major, so start by playing the scales, arpeggios and chordal progressions (tonic, sub-dominant and dominant) in these keys. This can help with fingering and note patterns. There are three sections with virtually the same material (containing the famous melody), so by beginning here, a large chunk of the piece can be mastered fairly quickly. Start by practising  hands separately. Combining them shouldn’t prove too difficult, as much of the material is played using separate hands; one hand replying to the other, rather like a conversation.

Two issues need attention within the outer sections; the first is the necessity of a completely accurate pulse and the second is the careful balance of sound required between the hands.

The former can be solved in many ways, but a good idea might be to set a very slow metronome semiquaver pulse, so in effect each note will be accounted for (you can also do this by counting aloud to each beat; six per bar, although your pulse must be extremely regular for this to work). Try to be sure to ‘sit’ on the metronome beat with no deviation when practising at least. Whilst this passage work looks innocuous, its simplicity can make it all the more difficult to articulate. Therefore, very careful listening is necessary, in order to allow for a totally even approach on and between each note. It’s this almost robotic articulation that will help your rendition to sound professional. Care is especially required during the following passage; every note must be placed correctly (bars 14 – 16):

Fur Elise 1

Work at each phrase (these outer sections consist of four bar phrases), thinking about fingering and placing each semiquaver precisely.

To achieve a good balance between the hands, a relaxed wrist and firm finger action is important, try to resist ‘locking’ the wrist and arm together; plenty of movement in your wrist will ensure a good sound which is necessary for the melody particularly. When practising rotational wrist movement, firstly try to encourage the wrist to move copiously or much more than necessary. Practising wrist movement between every note will help free tension, which can occur even when tackling simpler works.

The left hand needs to be light and very legato (or smooth). Practise moving from the bottom to the top note using a rotational wrist motion and a heavy sound (almost ‘digging’ into the key bed), then lighten the sound and you should hear even figurations. The right hand melody also benefits from heavy articulation at a slow speed. Resist the temptation for too much rubato (or ‘pulling’ of the tempo) to begin with. A completely seemless legato sound is necessary throughout the melodic line. Once the hands are combined, the left must ‘give way’ to the right, and provide the perfect accompanying role, always softer and lighter.

The first of the two more dramatic sections begins at bar 25 with three chords introducing a light-hearted melody. The left hand broken chords (or Alberti-Bass) can be ‘blocked out’ for quick study (playing all the notes in the chord in unison). When played as written, the thumb needs to be lighter and again a rotational hand movement will help with even rhythm and tone. The melody needs special attention because it contains a different rhythmic pattern and some ornamental passage work. Practice without the ornaments to begin with, adding them only when the passage is secure rhythmically.

The demisemiquaver figurations that end this section frequently cause some technical difficulties. When playing fast passages which require complete rotational movement such as bars 1 and 3 here, firstly ensure the elbow remains static, whilst the arm moves horizontally, turning from side to side, supporting the constantly pivoting hand and subsequently, the fingers. This needs to be done with freedom of movement but also very rhythmically. Equally important are active fingers. Use a firm fingertip (playing on the fleshy part of the tip), and start rotating slowly, picking up each finger cleanly. The movements will become smaller as the tempo gradually increases. Start by accenting top notes:

Fur Elise 2

Then the bottom notes:

Fur Elise 3

Finally accent in various patterns with different rhythms.

The second dramatic section begins at bar 62 and requires a smooth repeated note action in the left hand. Many prefer to change fingers on repeated notes, but this passage needs such a constant, equal sound that it may be better to use one finger (perhaps the third), again employing a loose pivotal wrist motion to keep articulation even. In order to build up a reliable wrist action without incurring any tension here, practice one bar at a time moving the hand in an ‘up and down’ motion (from the wrist), stopping and releasing any tension building in the wrist at the end of each bar. After a while (when flexibility has increased) the number of bars can be elongated (playing two together then three together), until all 16 bars can be negotiated without any tightness.

The right hand chords (which are full of angst, thanks to the diminished seventh chords), need a beautiful legato line. To achieve this, play the top line of each chord alone with suitable legato fingering, like this:

Fur Elise 4

Pay attention to the musical shape of the line and ensure a full singing tone. When satisfied, add the other notes in each chord. They must be much softer and unobtrusive. As the harmonies change, add more tone, colour and sonority. Practice without using any pedal so as to obtain complete finger legato. The pedal can be added in small doses when the notes are securely learnt; experiment with various flutter and half pedalling techniques (continually changing the sustaining or right pedal), so that harmonies are enhanced as opposed to smudged.

A cantabile touch (or singing tone) will make for an expressive, musical rendition. Use plenty of arm weight to produce the required rich sound. Once the notes are in place, explore various dynamic colours and small amounts of rubato for a convincing, musical performance.

Here are a couple of renditions to hopefully provide inspiration!

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Rhythmic Precision in the First Movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No. 1

Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas are a musical autobiography, charting the Master’s  development from a young man up to his death in 1827. The early sonatas are more typical of the traditional Classical style, akin to those written by Mozart and Haydn, whereas the last six, which are possibly the greatest in this genre ever written for the instrument, show Beethoven pushing the boundaries of sonata form as never before, producing esoteric, ecclesiastical and deeply personal music.

Most piano students at some time or other learn a Beethoven sonata, partly because they have such an exalted place in piano literature. They are also beautiful, very satisfying to play and are extremely instructive to learn. Rather like studying works by J. S. Bach, their structure (particularly the early sonatas) encourages students to digest Sonata Form as well as chordal writing (a predominant feature of the Classical Style) and get to grips with rhythmic precision.

A popular choice is Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No 1. Written in 1797, first published in 1798 and dedicated to Anna Margarete von Browne, the wife of one of Beethoven’s patrons, a Russian diplomat living in Vienna. All three sonatas of his Opus 10 are dedicated to Countess von Browne.  This work is the fifth in Beethoven’s entire sonata output and it’s interesting that he chose the key of C minor. Many of the composer’s most important pieces were conceived in this key, including Symphony N0. 5 Op. 67, Piano Concerto No. 3 Op 37, and Piano Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 (Pathétique).

Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No. 1 is an exam board favourite. Currently, the first movement is on the ABRSM Grade 8 Syllabus (List B) and the whole work can be played as part of the DipABRSM programme. I played it for my entrance audition into the Royal College of Music Junior Department, so it has special memories for me and no doubt, for many others too.

A particularly Beethovenian feature in the first movement, Allegro molto e con brio, are the dramatic contrasts of sound and emotion. Before negotiating anything at the piano, it’s worth taking some time to examine this movement carefully. Notice the structure (Sonata Form), how the thematic material is employed, where the development section occurs (different material) and how the recapitulation and coda are both handled. This also makes learning easier because there is much repetition. Beethoven asks for a myriad of different dynamic levels and touches, and observance of these is vital to the overall success of a performance.

Possibly the main technical element to be assimilated is the necessary rhythmic precision required to play this movement effectively. The Classical style generally commands a crisp, articulated rhythmic drive, quite different from that found in Romantic works (that’s not to say that the latter genre doesn’t demand rhythmic clarity, but there is more freedom in terms of rubato here).  Without attention to rhythmic detail, a rendition will not sound ‘professional’ or accurate. This aspect is often one of the most taxing to master because it’s not merely a matter of playing along to a metronome (although this helps!), but more importantly it all hangs on whether the beat has been successfully broken down (or subdivided) for total accuracy and absorbed by the pupil, the pulse becoming fundamental.

The work begins with a thunderous C minor chord (requiring proper arm-weight so as to create the appropriate rich, warm sound) followed by an arresting C minor arpeggio figure which is a dotted quaver declamation followed by a quiet answering phrase;

Beethoven Sonata 3

This rhythmic figure becomes crucial to the thematic material, so perhaps a good place to start is to mentally embed this rhythm. It’s all too easy to rush, losing the drama and sense of direction.  If this dotted rhythm is placed correctly from the beginning, it bodes well for the movement as a whole.

So what is the most convincing way of articulating a group of dotted quavers followed by  semi-quavers in this context? Start by deciding how best to sub-divide the beat and then take a very slow speed. Why not try keeping time in semi-quavers? Be sure to account for all four (in each crotchet beat), placing the dotted quaver on beat one and the semi-quaver on beat four respectively. It doesn’t matter how they are ‘counted’. Counting aloud is good; vocal counting can really help with this type of precision, encouraging the pupil to immediately understand where to place the note. Setting the metronome to accommodate semi-quavers (or quavers if you prefer) is a good idea. Play extremely slowly to start with.

Another important element to consider is the regularity of the beat. I have written about this in a past post (which you can read here). ‘Sitting’ on the pulse is vital. In a sense, it’s not really about counting; it’s the regularity that counts, or the evenness of time between each beat. Decide on the best fingering first (there are some suggestions in the example above). Good fingering coupled with free rotational hand movements used between each interval, will be vital to the rhythmic success here (rotational movement in passages like these is another whole blog topic, so I won’t go into that here!); if fingerings are awkward or haphazard then playing the note ‘on time’ will be difficult, similarly ‘stiffness’ when playing this motion will also cause problems with the timing again, which is why freedom in all hand and arm movement is imperative. The example below provides an idea of beat sub-division;

Beethoven right hand

Admittedly, the semi-quaver beats look a little distorted written out under each note in this way, but if they are adhered to rhythmically i.e. evenly, then the dotted notes will be accurately placed. It’s most effective if the semi-quavers are played swiftly in a ‘snappy’ forthright way, so that each phrase is clean, clear and dynamic.

Once the dotted quaver passage has been dealt with, it must ‘fit in’ rhythmically with the rest of the phrase, so keep up the sub-division of the  beat throughout each phrase and indeed the entire movement, at least for a while. After which, set the metronome to beat in crotchets when the dotted patterns have been assimilated and then gradually increase the speed. It’s essential to place the dotted quavers correctly in order to articulate the many triplet passages which also inhabit this movement. These triplet figures benefit from total differentiation to the dotted notes. Work at them similarly, keeping time with and without the metronome.

Aside from the dotted quaver passages, there are also many ‘Alberti-Bass’ figurations. Whilst they appear fairly straightforward in terms of technical difficulty, pupils can become surprisingly unstuck here. This is where technical issues merge with rhythmic ones (as so often in piano playing). As mentioned earlier, a free rotational arm movement is paramount to the success of the rhythmic regularity (as is good fingering). Try to tackle these passages slowly, working with a heavy touch and free wrist. It can be helpful to accentuate (or emphasize) the melodic line in each phrase here, which is the lower part in this case. The example below illustrates this point; the first beat of each crotchet provides melodic interest and the second quaver (middle C in this case) is of less interest and consequently needs to be ‘lighter’:

Beethoven Left hand 2

Focusing in this way will balance the hand therefore aiding rhythmic playing, it will also illuminate the musical line and the importance of giving each note its full value.

Chordal passages need proper placing too. If they are precise rhythmically, the effect is both dramatic and exciting. To work at this issue, set the metronome to a quaver beat and practice moving in time slowly from one chord to the next, always allowing the melodic line to ‘sing out’ at the top of the chord and try to keep a free wrist too, encouraging sufficient movement and a good sound. Observe the articulation; crisp staccato chords will further emphasize excellent rhythmic accuracy, for example.

Another rhythmical conundrum is the importance of rests. Silences can be easily ignored in piano playing, especially by students who are often nervous and eager to get onto the next section. However, it’s the silences that make the music, as Debussy remarked, “music is the silence between the notes”. So with this in mind, be sure to give each rest its full value; not just for dramatic effect, but also to allow the music to ‘breath’. It’s worth mentioning too, that it provides the pianist with more time to think, which can be of optimal value!

By working on the rhythm meticulously in this movement (or any other Classical sonata movement) from the outset, you will be on the way to giving an accurate account. The metronome is always a good way to start regarding rhythm particularly with a work such as this one (although I know many who don’t agree here), but once the pulse has been fully mastered, then pupils must learn to keep time independently. As with all piano playing, success is in the preparation and, in my opinion, the best way to approach any work is by breaking it all down. Good luck!

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.