Practising Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor Op. Posth. by Fryderyk Chopin

I wrote about practising this beautiful Nocturne a few years ago (you can read the article here), and it has become one of my most ‘viewed’ blog posts. This work is now especially popular partly due to the fact that it is on the current ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus (2017 – 2018). I was invited to rewrite the article for EPTA’s Piano Professional magazine; it was published earlier this year, and is more in-depth than the first one, with a few different practice ideas. I hope you find it of interest.


Fryderyk Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth, emotion and expressivity. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception, producing what are generally considered to be amongst the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument. This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is frequently referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.

The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character, suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated, bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are many variations, but the formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and exquisite piano music.

Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. A Nocturne, or any similar slower paced work requiring a cantabile (in singing style) touch and a deep connection with the key bed in order to produce a full, rich timbre, needs specific practice methods, and those ideas presented here could therefore be applied to a host of similar works.

During 2017/18, the piece featured on the syllabus of the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) Grade 7 piano exam. So with this in mind, here are a few practice suggestions for students to digest and apply, with the intention of making the path to examination success a little smoother.

The opening chords can present a few problems and need consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger (used to colour the top line) must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. A daunting opening such as this, where each note must sound fully, should ideally be voiced perfectly and yet still extremely soft. The trick (other than trying the concert or examination piano first!) is to focus on the top note (or melodic material) making quite sure it’s completely legato; ask students to change fingers, where necessary, keeping the legato line, and then combine with sparse pedalling. By making sure arm weight is transferred to the fourth and fifth finger (experiment by moving the right hand and wrist slightly to the right, away from the body, therefore providing more support for weaker fingers), pupils should be able to produce a full sound in the melody line allowing other notes  (accompanying chords) underneath to fade into the background.

I encourage students to join fingers wherever possible in a legato melodic line – it’s more effective than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys slowly, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the opening chordal passage must be played much softer, like an echo. Here’s the passage;

And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering);It can be helpful to practice the inner parts of the chords (as shown in the first example here) on their own, gauging the necessary feeling, balance, and sound in order to play sufficiently quiet, yet altogether. Add the top (melody) line when secure.

After the introduction, the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a captivating right hand melody prevails. There are many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole gamut of touches and pianistic colour; the three layers at the opening can be separated and practised in isolation (from bars 2 – 5);

  1. The melodic material in the right hand:

     2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand:

    3. The bottom of the chord (the bass line) which is usually the first quaver of every minim group which generally occur twice in every bar:

It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone for an extended period, until notes are fully grasped (it can help to know the patterns from memory too), because absolute consistency and evenness is necessary with regard to rhythm and tone.  Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music, but even the composer himself apparently insisted on a rhythmical bass, proclaiming ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra’, above which the melody can enjoy some rhythmical freedom.

Students might benefit from using a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo, playing deep into the key bed, because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as already mentioned, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach (this note can be held for a fraction longer than the other quavers), because it’s providing the bottom of the texture harmonically (the constant bass C sharps in the following extract. The example shows all three strands or layers of music from the examples above, combined (or as written));

It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory.

Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next, yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ layer of sound, and therefore should generally be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes.  To play these bass quavers evenly, it might be beneficial to play them in ‘blocks’ at first; blocking out chords involves playing the notes in each group (here, on every crotchet beat) all together, so the correct fingerings, hand positions and movement needed between notes is swiftly learned. When this has been done and thoroughly assimilated, ask pupils to play as written, encouraging the hand and wrist (especially) to roll from left to right, guiding the fingers into their positions, allowing fingers to ‘hover’ over the notes in preparation.

The large gaps between the notes in the left hand (i.e. between the C sharp, G sharp and the E, during the first two crotchet beats of bar 1, in the musical example above), is more comfortable with a wrist rotation (or lateral wrist movement), the hand moving quickly back to the C sharp on beat 3 (from the previous middle C (sharp) on the second quaver of beat 2 (bar 1)). To do this rhythmically and evenly, encourage students to stay on each note for as long as possible, quickly swivelling the fingers and hand into place in preparation for the next one; this way legato will hopefully prevail and there will be few gaps in the sound.

For note security and gradation of tone, the left hand can be practised without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As the bass part becomes more secure, so pedal can be gradually added. It’s crucial to constantly listen when pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious but it’s easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly.  During the ‘busier’ passages, pupils might experiment with ‘flutter’ pedalling; where the sustaining pedal is constantly moving up and down (or hovering) in order to ‘clear’ the sound and avoid blurring too many harmonic progressions.

The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass and consist of a wonderful operatic quality synonymous with Chopin’s style (Chopin was reportedly a fan of the Italian composer Bellini’s operas). A free wrist with plenty of arm weight can provide a suitably rich, warm sound; even the pianissimos need some arm weight and the overall timbre should ideally project fully. The success of this line relies on  an understanding of the nuances of each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Aim to study each phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting the sound and shape of the phrase accordingly. Ask pupils to listen to where and how the melody rises and falls, therefore enabling dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so students must allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.

The tricky ornamental or fioritura (or embellished) passagework and scalic runs can be negotiated by working again with a full sound (for practice purposes only), encouraging all fingers to play fully on their tips (particularly the fourth and fifths), and deeply into the keys, as opposed to sliding over the top (make sure the fingerings have been written in the score before practice begins). Then experiment with different types of articulation (staccato, non-legato, varying accents and dynamics); complete clarity is desired in every figuration, with all notes ‘sounding ‘equally, as opposed to being rushed or concertinaed together.

A particularly helpful method of practising trills, like that found in the musical example (in the right hand at bar 2), is to take the ornament out of context, working at it alone. Begin by securing the fingering (and sticking to it!), then ask students to play each note in the trill slowly and heavily, using the full force of each finger (always ensure a relaxed free wrist and arm, preferably after every note, so tension doesn’t arise). When the shape or pattern of notes has been understood, practice using accents on the weaker fingers, then on the stronger fingers.

Each note in the trill can be played twice or as a double note; every finger needs to enunciate the notes cleanly and with force here (but without any tension). Pupils can then play triple notes or triplets (three notes per trill note). When employing this approach, the wrist must be relaxed between every note, so the hand appears to be ‘bouncing’, as opposed to stuck in one position, which could indicate tension. By playing more notes than necessary, when the trill is played as written it feels much easier and more comfortable.

Elongating trills can also be useful, and by making them more challenging than originally written, when pupils return to playing Chopin’s score, inserting the ornaments into their rightful place, they seem much smoother and more controlled.

After practising the suggested methods using a distinctly heavy touch, a lighter finger touch should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages, with fingers skating over the keys lightly. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until total rhythmic grasp is honed, and only then start thinking about rubato. Working under tempo is also advisable until any hesitations and insecurities have been ironed out, and coordination between the hands is exact.

Scale passages in the right hand from bar 55 onwards, can be contoured to ‘fit’ with the bass line; encourage students to mark the score at the most convenient ‘meeting’ places between the right and left hand passagework, and then stick to this every time during practice sessions; within a short space of time, these ‘meeting’ places will feel increasingly natural, and will eventually allow for more rhythmic flexibility. The left hand quavers will also need to be elastic rhythmically in order to accommodate the group of thirty-five right hand semiquavers at bar 56.

At bar 19, new material heralds the start of a less sombre section, characterised by a dotted rhythm and insistent triplet figure (which appears in the left hand from bar 31 to bar 42 (the main theme returns at bar 44). Chopin has marked all details very thoroughly, from dynamics (‘ff’ to ‘pp’) to the precise musical markings, which must all be noted.

If students can colour each layer of sound accordingly, and combine this with a thorough technical grounding, they will be on their way to creating a persuasive reading of this enchanting piece. And they will hopefully be able to tackle any subsequent Nocturne or similar work effectively, whether it be for a graded exam, diploma, or concert performance.

Suggested further reading:

Chopin, Pianist and Teacher; As seen by his pupils: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (published by Cambridge University Press)

After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (published by Oxford University Press)

Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces Grades 1 – 8, 2017 – 2018 (published by ABRSM)

ABRSM Piano Notes 2017/18 (published by Rhinegold)

You can read the original article here: Practising Nocturne No 20 in C sharp minor by Fryderyk Chopin


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Advertisements

Weekend Competition winners…

ed_13860-turner_648_Many thanks to all who took part in my weekend competition. The prizes consist of one copy of My First Chopin and one of The Piano Playlist, both published by German music publisher, Schott Music.

Without further ado, the winners are…

David Barton wins My First Chopin

and Helen Miller wins The Piano Playlist

CONGRATULATIONS! ed_22459_1-ohmen_648_

Please send your address via the contact page on this blog, and your book will be on its way.

You can find out more about these publications on Schott’s website here.

There will be more competitions coming soon!


 

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Words and Music with Lucy Parham and Friends

British concert pianist Lucy Parham came to prominence when she won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, and  has since played with many of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors. More recently, she has become synonymous with performances of Words and Music. Lucy teams up with eminent actors, and themes her  concerts; each one delves into the lives (and often the loves too) of celebrated composers, such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Debussy.

Piano music combined with narration is indeed a popular concept, and Lucy has just released a couple of videos showcasing her work. You can enjoy them both by clicking on the links below:

If you would like to soak up the atmosphere and hear Lucy in person, here are a couple of forthcoming events:

Odyssey of Love (which focuses on Liszt and his women) will be performed on the 16th January at the Salisbury Playhouseand Lucy is joined by Joanna David and Martin Jarvis,  and also on the 17th January at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, where Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman will feature.

I interviewed Lucy as part of my Classical Conversations Series; she was one of my first guests:

www.lucyparham.com


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


‘Divine Fire’ at the Radcliffe Centre in Buckingham

The quaint, attractive market town of Buckingham, situated in North Buckinghamshire, played host to a rather special performance held at the Radcliffe Centre earlier this week. The centre, formerly a splendid church, is attached to the University of Buckingham and has been tastefully refurbished and renovated, catering perfectly for recitals and lectures. The venue presents a popular concert series and is a flourishing arts and cultural centre.

I’ve written before on this blog about my love for the combination of words and music. I had the good fortune to perform Melodramas and Recitations for several years with the recently deceased raconteur John Amis, and regularly observed audiences favourable reactions as they became captivated by the sheer beauty, emotion and profundity this alliance provides.

The relationship between  Frédéric Chopin and his lover George Sand is assiduously explored in this fascinating programme aptly entitled ‘Divine Fire’. Narrated and written by the celebrated actress Susan Porrett, the mellifluous prose transported us on a journey through Chopin’s turbulent existence, marking both his musical achievements and often chaotic personal life. Chopin, a shy, spiritual soul, who died at the untimely age of thirty-nine, spent nine years with the rebellious, feminist writer, Sand. This unlikely union, which from the outset was so full of promise, hope, romance and passion, slowly descended into misery, jealousy, despair, and ultimately with Chopin’s demise. Seemingly neither ever recovered from their final separation. A love story for the end of time.  Moving, expressive and heart breaking, this searing chronicle was effectively punctuated by many of the composer’s well-known piano compositions, elegantly performed by pianist Viv McLean.

Viv presented a wide range of Chopin’s works opening with the small-scale yet poignant Prelude in A major Op. 28 No. 7; not an obvious choice, but it was played with precision, poise and colour. The Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2 and Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45 were equally effective; restrained and contemplative yet devoid of any sentimentality. The interweaving of dialogue and piano music was beautifully judged with renditions of Chopin’s First and Third Ballades (Op. 23 and Op. 47), metamorphosing the reflective mood into an impassioned and dramatic aura.

Larger works such as the thrilling Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor Op. 39, ever popular Fantasie Impromptu in C sharp minor Op. 66 and Polonaise in C sharp minor Op. 26 No. 1 were juxtaposed with the Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. Posth. and the Mazurka in A minor Op 17 No. 4. Performed with consummate mastery, this Mazurka’s pervading improvisatory semblance exuded a trance-like quality.  As one of Chopin’s later compositions, the chromatically adventurous Polonaise Fantasie in A flat major Op. 61 afforded a fitting conclusion, and complimented the utterly tragic and desolate narrative enthralling conveyed by Susan. The script cleverly integrated a mixture of the lover’s letters with accounts and descriptions from friends and relatives, allowing their personalities to permeate powerfully.

Chopin and Sand were indeed present at this concert, appearing as ethereal apparitions on a large screen placed high above the performers. Sands’ painting dominated at the beginning, her piercing dark brown eyes illuminating the tempestuous character beneath. Chopin’s ghostly haunted image, which featured in the second half, was of a man whose spirit had been totally crushed, thoroughly consumed with sadness. The evening was an intense tour de force fully demonstrating the irresistible charms of words and music.

You can find more information about ‘Divine Fire’ and other themed concerts here.

Image link


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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 Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor Op. Posth.

Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth and emotion for both the pianist and listener. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception producing what are generally considered to be among the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument. The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive  bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are variations on this idea, however, this formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and beautiful piano music.

Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. One of my students presented the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor op. posth a few weeks ago and we have been working hard on various aspects.   This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.

There are so many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole variety of touches and colour.  It’s possible to work at this piece on so many levels and a Grade 8 or diploma exam is not in any way equivalent in standard to the rendition by Claudio Arrau (one of the greatest pianists of the Twentieth Century), linked below, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on how to approach and practice this work (or any similar style piece) on a fairly basic level.

The opening chords can present a few problems and require consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. It’s particularly daunting starting off with an opening such as this, where each note must sound fully; being perfectly voiced and very quiet all at the same time. The trick (other than trying your concert piano first!) is to focus on the top note (or melodic material) making quite sure it is completely legato by constantly changing fingers and employing sparse pedalling. By making sure your arm weight is transferred to your fourth and fifth finger, you should be able to produce a beautiful sound in the melody line allowing all other notes to fade into the background. Don’t be afraid to change fingers frequently in a legato melodic line – it’s much more effective and ‘clean’ than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys as slowly as you dare, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the chordal progression is effective when played softer, like an echo. Here’s the original passage;

Chopin Nocturne 1

And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering);

Chopin Nocturne 2

After the introduction the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a an exquisite right hand melody prevails. The melody, similar to  that in many of Chopin’s Nocturnes, has a wonderful operatic quality which could be viewed as the ‘singer’ and left hand or bass clef part (the accompaniment), as the ‘accompanist’, therefore,  the pianist has to engage in being both, effectively occupying both roles at once!

There are three layers of sound in this work;

1. The melodic material in the right hand.

2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand.

3. The bottom of the chord in the bass line which is generally the first quaver of every minim group which occur twice in every bar (generally).

It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone because it requires absolute consistency and evenness with regard to rhythm and tone. This work does not benefit from being over pedalled or from too much rubato. Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music generally, but even the composer himself always insisted on a rhythmical bass proclaiming, ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra.‘ Claudio Arrau’s performance (linked below) does provide an extraordinary illustration of perfect yet slightly exaggerated rubato.

Use a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. This practice technique works effectively in lots of other piano music too. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as mentioned above, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach (you can afford to hold this note a tiny bit longer than the other quavers), because they are providing the bottom of the texture harmonically (the constant bass C sharps in this extract);

Chopin Nocturne 4

It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory. Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ layer of sound so therefore should always be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes. A flexible wrist and a rotational hand movement can help here allowing more control over the amount of sound distributed to each note. If you can, practice the left without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As you become more secure with the bass part, so you can add pedal. It’s crucial to listen to your pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious however, it is easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly. Sometimes it’s beneficial to play the left hand part with both hands allowing for complete assimilation of the bass line.

The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass, the colourful chromatic inflections imparting drama, artistry and elegance, synonymous with Chopin’s style. A free wrist with plenty of arm weight provides a good sound; even the pianissimos need proper arm weight and the overall sound needs to project fully. The success of this line relies on  an understanding of the nuances of each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Study each two or four bar phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting your sound accordingly. The melody should rise and fall enabling the dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.

The tricky ornamental passagework and scalic runs can be easily negotiated by working again with a full sound, encouraging all fingers to work completely (make sure you have worked out all your fingering first) then experiment with different types of articulation; complete clarity is desired in every figuration.  After this, a lighter approach should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until you feel secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until you have a total rhythmic grasp and only then start thinking about rubato.

Chopin has marked all musical details very thoroughly, so if you can colour each layer of sound, you will be on your way to playing any Nocturne effectively.

And a performance of the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor by Maestro Claudio Arrau…..

You can read a more in-depth, detailed, updated version of this blog post here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Valerie Tryon in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My nineteenth Classical Conversation is with British concert pianist Valerie Tryon. Valerie now resides in Ancaster in Ontario, Canada, but was visiting the UK to record a disc with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra when I caught up with her in London last week.

Valerie’s career as a concert pianist began while she was still a child. Before she was twelve she had broadcast for the BBC and was appearing regularly before the public on the concert platform. She was one of the youngest students ever to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Music where she received the highest award in piano playing and a bursary which took her to Paris for study with Jacques Février.

Her place among Britain’s acknowledged artists was assured when a Cheltenham Festival recital brought her the enthusiastic acclaim of the country’s foremost critics. Since then she has played in most of the major concert halls and appeared with many of the leading orchestras and conductors in Britain. Her career has latterly taken her to North America where she has appeared in such cities as Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She now lives in Canada where she is the Artist-in-Residence at McMaster University, but spends a part of each year in her native Britain.

Her repertoire is enormous and ranges from Bach to contemporary composers; it includes more than sixty concertos and a vast amount of chamber music. Among British composers, both Alun Hoddinott and John McCabe have dedicated works to her. She is well known for her sensitive interpretations of the romantics — Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov in particular. When the BBC launched its Radio Enterprises record label, some years ago, Valerie’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux, op. 39, was the first classical disc to be released. More recently she has recorded the complete Ballades and Scherzos of Chopin for the CBC’s “Musica Viva” label, which Harold Schonberg of the New York Times described as “the best Chopin recording of the past decade.” Notwithstanding her involvement in the music of the nineteenth century, she retains a deep love of Scarlatti, whose keyboard sonatas she has delighted in playing in public since her childhood and early youth, and to which she remains deeply committed. Likewise, her ongoing series of the complete piano music of Claude Debussy, represents a special passion: she has twice performed this important repertoire in a demanding cycle of five successive recitals.

One of Valerie’s chief enthusiasms is chamber music. Two of her best-known duo partners in England were Alfredo Campoli (violin) and George Isaac (cello), with both of whom she made a number of significant recordings. Her performance with Isaac of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata is now considered to be a collector’s item.

Since moving to Canada, Valerie has performed frequently with cellist Coenraad Bloemendal. Both were members of the Rembrandt Trio with violinist Gerard Kantarjian.

Valerie has been awarded several distinctions for her services to music. She was an early recipient of the Harriet Cohen Medal. More recently the Liszt Memorial Plaque was bestowed on her by the Hungarian Minister of Culture in recognition of her lifelong promotion of Franz Liszt’s music.

Valerie in action…..


And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews……….

MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist Valerie Tryon has given recitals and concerto performances all around the world.  She was one of the youngest students ever to be accepted to study at the Royal Academy of Music and has won many prizes in accolades for her playing including Harriet Cohen medal.  So, I’m delighted she’s taken the time today to join me for one of my Classical Conversations here in London , where she’s been recording the Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Welcome.

VALERIE TRYON: Hello Melanie.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to chat with you.  Thank you for joining me.   I am going to start by talking all about your musical education.  What age were you when you started, What’s the catalyst, and did you come from a musical family?

VALERIE TRYON:  My mother was a pianist and a singer, and she was an actress.  She had so many talents.  My father loved music but his …   his art laid with painting.. drawing. So I suppose you could say that I did have artistic parents.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, very much so.

VALERIE TRYON: But I don’t know.  I know that I started playing when I was four.  My mother told me I tried to push her off piano stool at two and that’s how it start and it  hasn’t finished now that I’m a hundred and two.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, which teacher then do you think was crucial to your development or maybe most helpful?

VALERIE TRYON: Well, the first teacher I had was across the road.  My mother thought I think that it would be better for to have lessons from someone other than the family. And so, she sent me across the road to Mr. Lawrence, who said hello to me and let me in, sat me at the piano and then went upstairs and did his eblutions. And I had him shaving and then he would come down  after I finished the piece and say “Very nice Valerie . Next week I want you to play this.” That was my first . ..

MELANIE SPANSWICK:.Your.introduction.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. But my mother has taught me as well.  And then, I went to a Mr. Whittaker at Leeds College of Music. And he was a teacher of the Matthey method.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.

VALERIE TRYON:  ..and that I think was my blessing because I’ve never ever  had a single problem with my hands and fingers.  Some pianist usually get something.. Tendonitis . but I think the Matthey method saved me because it was all natural from the beginning.  I didn’t have to learn it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right. Yes.

VALERIE TRYON:  I had the relaxation given to me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That was.. That was my next question because I have the good fortune to hear you so many times and you have what  seems to me to be an effortless technique. I was gonna ask how you..you know, developed that?

VALERIE TRYON:  Well, it isn’t effortless actually.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It looks effortless. It really does.

VALERIE TRYON:  I do work hard.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I know. I’m sure but it’s .. it’s amazing.

VALERIE TRYON:  But I have… I have learned how to … how to do stuff without making too much effort and without getting stiff.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Perhaps you would like to explain about that? The technique?

 VALERIE TRYON:  The technique?

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.

VALERIE TRYON:  Well, there is a book I think about Matthey. And I think MyraHess was a Matthey student and Moura Lympany I believe.  They all had this basic technique taught them when they were little. I only remember this kind of things for practicing.  And falling the weight (does an arm movement).. Falling on the keys and your fingertips taking the weight. And in… in… in my recent years, I found that the most important thing which I never realized to was just common sense really to see where the problem is and to figure out the best way to dealing with that. It may be fingering, or the way your arm is going, or it might be all kinds of things. But if you can work it out, then you can deal with the problem.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Sort it out.  But it’s to do with making, you make a beautiful sound it’s obviously to do with the arm weight..

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: And you made your debut when you were very young.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So do you encourage young pianists to get a lot of performance practice when they’re young? Do you think it’s a good idea to be exposed to performing at a young age?

VALERIE TRYON:  I don’t know.  I used to play for all kinds of short things.  I used to play things  like the Minute Waltz and I played with a little orchestra called Henry Crowdson String Orchestra but I didn’t play actually with them.  I had solos in between.  But the things that worried me then were whether I go on the right way …whether I bowed properly or whether I would fall over the wires on the way out. I never actually worried about playing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You didn’t worry about playing at all.

VALERIE TRYON:  No.  But now, of course it’s the opposite way.  Sometimes I wish I could trip over something.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Oh dear. You were a major prize winner of Liszt International Competition.

VALERIE TRYON:  No, No I wasn’t.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You weren’t?

VALERIE TRYON:  No, I wasn’t a major prize winner.  I don’t know how this ever came about.  I feel embarrassed about it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It’s… It’s  on your biography isn’t it?

VALERIE TRYON:  It does it say there?

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.

VALERIE TRYON:  Oh, I never put that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: But you played in the competition for ..

VALERIE TRYON:  Oh, yeah.  I got a prize .. but it wasn’t one the main ones. They  actually.. Annie Fischer was one of the jury and I believe Moura Lympany too.  It was a very distinguished jury. And there were four of us in the competition that they felt deserved the prize although it wasn’t on the menu as it were. So, the main prizes were Lazer Berman was third on this competition and they added the four. There was Annie Petit , who was a French girl, me, and I think somebody  who’s called Ashanski who’s a Hungarian, and I can’t remember the other one.  But we were all given this one..added on  — .
MELANIE SPANSWICK: a special prize.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes, which was called Concours or out of  the competition.  And there was money too.  I was able to spend lots of money and take stuff home so it was something.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Did you find that it kind a shaped and changed your career, winning this prize? Or did you….

VALERIE TRYON:  No.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It didn’t?

VALERIE TRYON:  No, Nothing has changed my career.  Nothing I’ve had rave reviews, it hasn’t made any difference.  I’ve had bad reviews, that hasn’t made any difference. Nothing. I just plod along the same way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You just played wonderful concerts. You’ve got huge, major repertoire. You play so many different composers. Which composers are you drawn to?

VALERIE TRYON:  The ones I think I play best are probably the Romantics… I feel more at home with the Romantics. I love Bach, but it frightens me to death.   I love Mozart, I love Hadyn,  I love Beethoven, Schubert. I love them all. I’m totally promiscuous. I love all of them.  And the ones I’m playing at the time are my favourites.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Sure.

VALERIE TRYON:  But I feel, should I say, so comfortable with Chopin, Liszt and Brahms even, and also the Impressionists.  I feel very comfortable with them partly I suppose  because I had lessons with Jaques Février and he gave me the.. he gave me  the lowdown on style.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You went.. You studied with him in Paris.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: And also, you’ve recorded and performed the complete Debussy piano  music.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. And Ravel.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: and Ravel. Why? What attracted you to this.. this style?  Is it the sound?

VALERIE TRYON:  I just… I feel very thrilled with the colours for one thing. I love the mystery and the resonance and the differences of the colours you can make, and the vagueness and the rhythm because I think that’s important… very important.  Février told me Ravel didn’t like his music sentimentalized at all.  He liked it to be heartfelt and very expressive but not overdone so the phrases would flow on to the next without stopping. That kind of thing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I understand.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You were the Ferenc Liszt Medal of Honour by …  in 1986 by the Hungarian Minister of Culture.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes, that was nice.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, for your interpretation of Liszt. I know you love Liszt so what attracts you to his style?

VALERIE TRYON:  I think it just ah…  he … he appeals to my soul in some way.  Well, they all do.  I think he has some special harmonic  chime  somehow.  I love his poetry. I don’t have any particular love for the histrionics and flamboyant Liszt but I do love the poetic side.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.  Tell us about your love for Scarlatti because I know you play a lot of the Sonatas.

VALERIE TRYON:  I love Scalartti.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Very difficult repertoire actually.

VALERIE TRYON:  You have to be very on the ball, don’t you with that?

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Incredibly.

VALERIE TRYON:  You can’t.. you can’t make a mistake.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: No.

 VALERIE TRYON:  And you can’t flubb anything. It has to be right there. Well, I just love the rhythm and the whole thing. I wouldn’t really like to play it on the harpsichord.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That was my next question. Have you tried it on harpsichord?

VALERIE TRYON: I wouldn’t like that because the piano is so perfect.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.

VALERIE TRYON:  And for Bach too.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. Yes.

VALERIE TRYON: I don’t think we can compare it.  I’m sure Bach would have loved and the piano and the pedal.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which venues have you really enjoyed performing in around the world?

VALERIE TRYON:  Mostly, my own home.  I don’t…

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You say you’re living in Canada now.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lived there for quite a few years…

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. I’ve always felt more at home in the recording studio than a hall.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s interesting.

VALERIE TRYON:  I like the privacy in a recording studio. And although you are giving to an audience and they’re giving back, it’s more stressful for me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: performing in concerts..

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, you always look so incredibly relaxed.

VALERIE TRYON:  It’s all an act.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: What exciting plans have you got for the future?

VALERIE TRYON:  Future.. well, I have this recording that I am just doing now.  That will come out nice and….

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m sure it will. Have you recorded the other concertos as well?

VALERIE TRYON:  No.  I’ve never recorded… The last concerto I did were two Mozarts and a Rondo which I liked so much and I like playing Mozart. I really enjoyed it. But I haven’t.. I haven’t done any of the Beethoven and that is partlys because I leave that to other people I think. I always feel.. I know it sounds funny but I feel that I’m a woman when I play Beethoven.  It doesn’t affect any other composer. But it’s like my adverse feeling towards women pilots. It’s something very weird inside men.  I’d rather have a man pilot and ..

MELANIE SPANSWICK: … and rather playing Beethoven.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s interesting. So, have you never recorded concertos?

VALERIE TRYON:  No.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Really? You must have played them.

VALERIE TRYON:  I played them a lot yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: But not recorded them…

VALERIE TRYON:  No.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing piano mean to you?

VALERIE TRYON:  Well, I really can’t imagine not playing the piano. All these years I have played the piano.  If some people say “Are you going to retire?”  and..  I have all my faculties. I mean,  I still have my brain I think and my fingers still work.  And I feel that unless something happens to cripple me, I shall just go on playing because it would feel very strange if I didn’t.  And I don’t know how I would feel.  I think I would feel as if my raison d’etre had gone.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. I could understand that. But that’s good for us because you are one of my favourite pianists.  Thank you so much for joining me today.

VALERIE TRYON:  Thank you for having me Melanie.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.