Thursday, March 20, 2008


Ballades, Op 10

This was my first Brahms piece. Listening to it again brings back good memories. I remembered feelilng overwhelmed by the big chords and the amount of sound that was produced. My teacher in college kept telling me that I need to have an image of Brahms in my head when I play his music: a fairly big guy with a big gut and with arms the size of a tree trunk. I will always remember that.

This is, in my opinion, a very good starter into Brahms' works. It is not too terribily difficult but has all the "Brahmsian" characters in the music: big, thick chords, hemiolas, big, rolled chords, polyrhythms, rich harmony, and some large stretches (though not as many compared to his other works). These are four intermezzi-like pieces. Each is in ABA form with a contrasting B section differ from the A section in key, tempo, mood, and character. The first one is stately and regal, somewhat solemn and serious. The second one, a lullaby, develops into a stormy and restless B section with a fairly difficult Molto staccato e leggiero section with quick grace notes. The third one, actually marked as "Intermezzo" by Brahms, sounds like the Scherzo movement of a sonata, is quick in tempo. The last one, begins with series of song-like descending arpeggios, progresses into the middle section which is meandering in nature with its relentless polyrhythms that go through many modulations, creates harmonic ambiguity and uncertainty of direction.

Op 118

1. Intermezzo - definitely a good starter for the set. It surprised me how short the piece is. There is not a contrasting section and the whole thing is simply two pages long. One of the prominent things that I noticed is the left arpeggios and how low they are in the register, which is a great contrast to the right hand passionate melody.

2. Intermezzo - the one everybody loves and wants to play. I have already taught it twice this year! No doubt, one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. The recording I heard, performed by Idil Biret, was too fast for my taste. Though I like everything else she does.

3. Ballade - typical Brahms: thick textures, left hand octave leaps, contrasting B section.

4. Intermezzo - interesting feature: emphasis on the second beats for the first seven measures, then emphasis on the first beats for four. It plays tricks with listeners' ears.

5. Romanze - lullaby in 6/4. In the beginning, we feel the music in 3. By measure 8, we feel it in 2 because of how it is grouped (three sets of two-note slurs).

6. Intermezzo - this huntingly beautiful piece seems to be narrative in nature: a story of something sad and tragic that has happened. The opening has a recitative quality that meanders, which is created partly through harmonic ambiguity. In the middle section, things lighten up a bit: major key, quicker rhythmic motion, staccatos, more light-hearted in general. Brahms then seamlessly take us back to deep grieving and solemn. This is perhaps my favorite piece out of the entire set. It is very different sounding from the rest of the set. It is music that speaks to the soul.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Grieg and others

Grieg Sonata and Lyric Pieces, Op. 12

A four-movement sonata, each is quite short (between 3-6 minutes), in sonata standard. This fits well into his "miniature form" scheme of his compositional style. The "lyrical" aspect, which is so apparent in all of his music, is heard especially in the second movement. I love how the beginning is so simple and sweet but later becomes stormy and passionate, totally unexpected. The first movement, in my opinion, is quite Schumanesque, with its off-beat melody, rumbling low-register accompaniment, and the dotted-rhythms. The third movement, a melancholy and grandioso march, a lyrical section with an inversion of the motive from the beginning. Fourth movement, playful in character, again with the dotted rhythms. Having never played this piece before but heard it at numerous different performances, I would imagine it would be a good show piece for a concert. It is a piece that everyone an enjoy, whether you are a professional musician, an amateur pianist, or someone who does not know a thing about music. To me, it is what makes Grieg's music so attractive, because it reaches out to the general public, no matter who you are.

Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, what a lovely piece! Each of these selections are short and sweet (1-2 minutes each). Each presents a different song or dance. Most of them are folk songs or dances or Norwegian. Grieg's talent of writing beautiful melodic lines (yet simple, which is what most folk tune is about) is so apparent here in these miniature pieces.

Frank Prelude, Chorale and Fugue

As I listen to this piece, couple of features come to mind:

Improvisatory style: arpeggios, chromaticism (descending base line in octaves, scales), harmonic meandering.

Pedal tone: the B pedal point that is throughout the piece.

Chorale style: rolled-chords (goes with the improvisatory element). The use of roll-chords is an expressive element of the music.

Off-beats starts: very Bach-like, as we mentioned in class. A good example is the Chromatic Fantasy.

Fugue: a Bach-like 3 voice fugue, but freer in style, less reserved, more outpouring of emotions. I especially like the intro to the fugue, which is a nice bridge connecting the motive material from the prelude and then developing it in the fugue.

Saint-Saens Etude en Forme de Valse

A fun piece! It definitely has some "etude-like" quality to it. The repeated notes, double-notes, ascending 3rds, octaves, all at obscenely fast speed, unless you are Rubinstein, is hard to pull off. What I like about it is that on top of all the Liszt-like brilliant and virtuosic stuff, Saint-Saens managed to make it sound not too pretentious and over the top. Though I'm not exactly sure how anybody could possibly "dance" to this without falling or killing their feet!

Chabrier Scherzo-Valse

No. 10 from the Piece Pittoresque, is in 9/16 meter. This implies that it is a very quick waltz. In the beginning of the piece, the second beats are accented. As the piece progresses, the first beats were accented. Then it alternates, gives it an unexpected feeling of never knowing what will happen next. The word "pesant dance" comes to mind. This piece is not without technical difficulties. The staccato triplets in Vivo is especially hard to articulate clearly.

Alkan Etudes Op 39 No. 12 Le festin d'Esope

We talked about in class how incredibly difficult his music is. It is notey, random, and can be a bit strange. It can get overwhelmingly virtuosic. Sometimes they get too loud and bombastic to the point that it becomes noisy. I appreciate the idea of writing a set of variations using etude format for each of them. We can definitely hear the brilliance of the sound and the virtuosity from Chopin and Liszt's influences.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12

Written in C-sharp minor, the piece has a somewhat dark and solemn quality. The beginning has a very typical figure of Liszt: grace note octaves, which is also seen in the second, tenth, thirteenth, and fourteenth. It starts with a slow, recitative like introduction. It goes through many tempo and key changes throughout the piece. The section of Un poco piu lento has a lyrical and expressive quality with dotted rhthms and chromaticism. In Allegro zingarese, the hungarian dance kicks is interjected by a melancholy slow section. The section follows sounds almost like a march, intertwined with virtuosic Lisztian octaves in, once again, dotted rhythms. In Allegretto giogoso, very Liszt like trills on top of the melodic line, followed by a light heartd dances, emphasizing the second beats! Stretta Vivace: fast and hard! Double notes chromatics and the usual difficult octaves. The ending octave passage on the left hand (before the E major section) sounds like one section in the first movement of the Liszt Concerto No. 1.

Spanish Rhapsody

The Lento introduction sets a gloomy and somber mood to a more light-hearted character later in the piece. This piece combines the "rhapsody" and the "Spanish" aspect together by sometimes emphasizing the second beats (rhapsody like) and other times on the the first beat (Spanish-like). The delicate cadenze follows the slow intro before the real Spanish music begins in Andante moderato. The expressive section is then followed by difficult chromatic double notes on both hands and octaves for a few pages before another Spanish tune enters. This one consists mainly of thirds in the melody. It progressively gets harder and harder as it bursts out into chromatic scales and large octave leaps.

Trascendental Etude No. 10

This etude is full of passion and drama. The famous beginning of this etude, with hands over-lapping at a ridiculously fast speed, sets up the off-beat syncopated pattern in that melody that is seen throughout the piece. The main motive in the first theme is changed every time through the difference in accompaniment: the first time the accompaniment and melody play off of each other more; the second with more "swirling" accompaniment; third with triplets in both melody and accompaniment, but played at different times. Liszt also develops the motive in ascending sequences. The second theme has a beautiful melodic line in octaves with tricky left hand passages. The coda is explosive and even faster than the first established tempo.

Transcendental Etude No. 12

Chasse-Neige is the programmatic title of this etude, which means "impetuous winds which raise whirls of snow". The description fits the piece well. There is a constant "whirling" of sounds through the tremelos, which is the prominent accompaniment of the entire piece. The melody (the snow flakes, maybe?) seems to rise above the turmoil and the difficulty of this, of course, is that the melodic line has to be played seamlessly when it is switched from one hand to the other, but at the same time, without destroying the flow of the turbulent accompaniment. This piece reminds me very much of Un Sospiro from Liszt's Three Concert Etudes, where it sound like an "extra hand" is playing the melody.

La Leggierezza

Possibly the most "Chopinesque" of Liszt. From the title, it is obvious that the challenge here is to play everything "light and delicate". Unlike most of other Liszt's etudes, this one has no bombastic octaves and chords. The left hand leaps are very difficult, especially while trying to coordinate with the right hand double notes (which has to be played delicately!). It is one of my favorite Liszt etude and everyone should play it at some point of their musical career!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ballade No. 1 and its various performances

Ballade No. 1 opens with a Largo introduction followed by the first subject in 6/4 in G minor. It starts out simple and subtle before bursting into a stormy and agitated section. The second subject in E-flat major has simple yet beautiful melody. The first subject returns in E major, this time more developmental in nature with virtuosic right hand octaves. There is a scherzo section in E-flat major before the returns of the second subject in B-flat major. The first subject returns once more in D major before the intense and difficult coda. It seems like Chopin has sonata form and theme and variations forms in mind when he wrote these. There are two main themes in the whole piece but each theme is further developed through different variation techniques.

So the first pianist, full of passionate energy, seems to pour all of his/her emotion into music. From the background noise and the ambience of the recording, we can tell that it's a live performance, which probably has a lot to do with the ever unstraining passion that goes into the piece. This pianist is brave in playing the fast section so ferociously! Unfortunately, he/she also sacrifices the clarity or the passages a bit. It is very exciting playing, but because of the fast tempo, a feeling of "got to go somewhere", it ceases to "paint a picture and tell a story", as what Chopin might had in mind. From the lack of accuracy in notes and the speediness of the playing, I guess Horowitz.

The second pianist, very sentimental and detail in execution. What a wonderful sense of touch. It is effortless to listen to the performance. Transitions between sections are well-thought out and smooth. The fast passages flows well into the slow, lyrical sections. Texturally, I can hear different layers at all time! The performer has a very clear idea of how he/she wants to organized the piece. The returns of each theme and its variations never sounded redundant. The coda is clean and not hectic (which is very hard to do...) Unlike the first performer, I hear a story going on, painting different pictures in my head. I guess Artur Rubinstein.

The third pianist, probably the most straighforward out of the three. Rubato was never overly done, the transitions between the fast and slow sections were tastefully exectued, and the clarity and the accuracy that every audience listens for are also presence without sounding forced. It combines the first pianist's passion and the second pianist's introspective quality into one, resulting in a perfect blend of sentimentality and virtuosity. I guess Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Friday, February 8, 2008

More Chopin!

Polonaise in F-sharp Minor

Like many of the other polonaises Chopin wrote, this one has a noble and majestic quality. It starts with a virtuosic introduction of octaves (with harmonic ambiguity) leading to the main theme of the piece (we finally do arrive on the tonic!). At the end of the first section, Chopin cleverly uses the F natural to lead into the next area, which is in B-flat minor. After that Chopin constantly switches back and forth between these two tonal areas before a brand new section of what sounds like the drum roll with single, monotone A as the "melody". The theme in the B section returns briefly in this section before the drum roll continues into a Mazurka section. The jerky rhythms (emphasis on the second beats) gives an unsteady feel (hence the jerkiness). The grace notes add more flavors and flares to the dance. This "hopping around" from section to section gives this piece a somewhat fantasy-like characteristic.


A Barcarolle is a folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers (Venetian sculling boats). The beginning rocking motion of the left hand accompaniment shows the "rocking back and forth" of the boats in the water. As we discussed in class, the melodic thirds, which is used quite frequently, have an Italian quality. Chopin also uses the melodic sixths throughout the piece. Notice the left hand rocking motion never stops, but just written in different ways. The right hand decorated melody gives that nice free, improvisational quality we see so often in Chopin's music.

Mazurkas, Op. 59

Each of the three pieces presents a differe flavor: the first one melancholy and otherworldly; the second simple and sweet; the third majestic and full of energy. All three are harmonically complex with chromaticism playing a big part in the music (i.e. the chromatic passage leading to the coda at the end of the second one). Because of the dance nature and the emphasis on the second beats, even if it is in the minor mode and has a sentimental and melancholy melody, it still sounds somewhat playful. In the second and third one, it has a hint of the polonaise, with it's marching-like, majestic quality. The melody (never stays in one place, always moving up and down the keyboard), along with complex harmonies, giving it a 'weaving in-and-out" feel to the music.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Clara Schumann and Mendelssohn's Variations

Both sets of variations by Clara Schumann and Mendelssohn have some interesting similarities and differences. Both pieces are written less obscurely (not as harmonically and rhythmically complicated and as Beethoven's and Brahms' variations), meaning that the variations written following the theme are quite straightforward. The theme is often times clearly stated and it is usually in the top voice. Clara Schumann's variations, compared to Mendelssohn's, are more sectionalized between variations. There is a clear beginning and ending for each variation. Mendelssohn's, on the other hand, has more connection between variations. For example, the beginning of Variation 11 sounds more like a continuation of Variation 10, instead of a new idea. This connection is also further enhanced through the persistent key of D minor throughout the piece (notice that almost every variation ends with a D minor chord and begins with some kind of D minor figuration). The only exception of this is in Variation 14, where it is in the relative major of the original key. Clara also uses the relative major key for several of the variations. Harmonically, it is less adventurous than Mendelssohn's. The theme of Mendelssohn's variation introduces chromaticism right from the start. In Variation 10, the contrapuntal writing here chromaticized the piece even more. We can also see here of Bach's influence behind Mendelssohn's writing.

Comparing textures, Mendelssohn seems to have more things going on. He creates thicker texture and is not afraid to venture out from the middle of the keyboard. Clara's tends to resemble her husband's writing more: more timid in extremes on the piano. The broken chords is a very Mendelssohn-like is the figuration in Variation 17: (right hand on the down beat playing the first chord of the triplet, the rests with the left hand). This creats a flowy and fluent texture. We can see influences of Schumann in both sets of variations. Clara writes more for the middle of the keyboard and chorale-like passages (Variation II and III). Mendelssohn writes off beat melodies (Variation 5 and the end of Variation 17). I also thought that Variation V (ascending octaves and octaves unison on both hands) of Clara's and Variations 3 (octaves), 6 (virtuosic leaps) and 12 (more octave leaps) of Mendelssohn's resemble some of Brahm's virtuosic variation writings.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Chopin Nocturnes and Preludes


"Chopin was a genius of universal appeal. His music conquers the most diverse audiences. When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall there is a happy sign of recognition. All over the world men and women know his music. They love it. They are moved by it. Yet it is not Romantic music in the Byronic sense. It does not tell stories or paint pictures. It is expressive and personal, but still a pure art, even in this abstract, atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures. His music is the universal language of human communication. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people!" ---Artur Rubinstein

The diversity Rubinstein speaks of here can especially be seen with Chopin's nocturnes. It's got it all: the lyricism, the imagination, the passion, the virtuosity. Each nocturne creates a different mood: some are calm and simple (Op. 9 No. 1; Op. 15 No. 2; Op. 72, No. 1); some are turbulence and dramatic (Op. 15, No. 1; Op. 48, No. 1; Op. 62, No. 1). There are also others that start quite and sweet, yet turns into quite a storm in the B section (Op. 15, No. 1; Op. 27, No. 1; Op. 62, No. 2). There are couple of strange ones: Op. 32, No. 1 has an uncalled for pause at the end of section A, ending on an inconclusive C-sharp minor chord (ii of B major). The music just stops for a brief second, before a new idea is introduced, without any transitional material. This happens three more times at the return of each A section! Chopin is also quite adventurous harmonically in these nocturnes. For example, in Op. 27, No. 1, the beginning of the piece opens with C-sharp minor accompaniment while the right hand E-sharp clashes with it. Many of these nocturnes follow song forms, with a contrasting B section through changes in meter, tempo, and texture. B section is often times passionate and virtuosic.

As Rubinstein commented, Chopin's music moves audience. They are full of sentiments and to a certain degree, spiritual. In Op. 15, No. 3, a section towards the end is marked religioso, a choral, hymn-like melody that is peaceful and without disturbance. Listening to Chopin's nocturnes, in many ways, is an otherworldly experience; as if the music has transcended us into a higher place...of course it helps to have someone like Rubinstein, the master interpreter of Chopin's music, whose playing touches everyone's heart.

Preludes, Op. 28

What an exciting set of pieces! I like the perfect blend of emotional turmoil and undisturbed tranquility. The preludes, as some of us know, are based on the circle of fifths, using all the related major and minor keys in ascending number of sharps and descending number of flat keys: resembling Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. What is different from Bach's well known preludes and fugues is first of all, how succinct each selection is. They are also, in my opinion, even more dramatic contrasts between each number. I read once that these are really more like tone poems than preludes. Each has a different character and speaks in a poetic way. Like the nocturnes, these are quite diverse. Some of them are etude-like with its daunting technical difficulty: No. 3 (evil left hand ostinato), 8 (voicing out inner voice while there's everything else!), 12 (bass leaps!), 16 (bass leaps!), 19 (bass leaps!), and 24 (descending double thirds). Nos. 13 and 15 sound like nocturnes. No. 7 is a miniature mazurka. Nos. 9 and 20 are hymn-like. No. 6 is a lament. No. 14 is written in quite a low register (only 4 bars plus a beat is written on treble clef), which gives the dark, turbulent character.