Piano Technique: Working with the character of rhythms

It’s easy to assess a student’s difficulty with navigating scales in progressive tempo framings from quarters to 8th notes to 16ths, etc. as being the result of shortcomings in rhythmic perception, when a larger cosmos of awareness is lacking.

I think immediately of the Eurhythmics course I took at the Oberlin Conservatory, taught by the legendary Inda Howland. It was not a doctrinaire approach to realizing the individual character of rhythms according to the tenets of Jacques Dalcroze. Instead, it was in part an imagery fed environment that supported the motion of the body in understanding the flow of notes as it also nourished relaxed breathing tied to the vocal and movement model. Triplets were expansive, rolling, and unrelenting, never crowded into a narrow space. They had to “breathe” in concert with our organic sense of them. (Think “vowels”) To experience the breadth of these notes, we grouped them in a horizontal procession, swaying, and physically ingesting their uniqueness.

In a transition to 16th notes, we realized a new character framing, a different “inner speed motion.” Our mentor spoke of “density,” unswerving “energy,” and lack of inhibition. She referenced “shape,” “contour,” “freedom” of physical and emotional expression.

If I tried to cram all that I absorbed from my Eurhythmics experience into a piano lesson, it would be a formidable task. Yet, I find myself prompting my students, not just with mental images, but with conducting motions, singing, demonstrating, and opening the piano technique portion of the lesson to a wide universe of personal/physical/musical discovery. (Choreography at the keyboard is a vital ingredient of rhythmic realization, but it’s always at the service of what’s “natural” or “organic” to the outpouring of notes)

Therefore, a metronome, per se, will not “correct” rhythmic weakness. Instead, an integration of ideas that harnesses the imagination, relaxes the body/mind and opens the student to experimentation and self-analysis, can go a long way to stimulating an awareness of how notes “breathe” in groupings to phrase peaks and resolutions.

Two examples

A local interaction with an adult student (B minor arpeggios and scales)


My “Rhythm Rehab Lab” centered tutorial that followed a lesson with a pupil in Australia

About Eurhythmics


Original Source: Piano Technique: Working with the character of rhythms

Swedish opera : Stenhammer’s Ibsen Gillet på Solhaug.

The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen’s play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer’s opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history. Well worth shelling out for, since  Gillet på Solhaug is good listening and the new critical edition, by Anders Wiklund, should establish a reputation for early Swedish opera. Wilhelm Stenhammer (1871-1927),  like most musicians of the time, studied in Berlin and Florence, but worked primarily in Sweden. As a composer, he is extremely well known  for his songs, chamber music and piano works. Gildet på Solhaug, completed in 1893 was his first formal opera. It premiered at the Hoftheater Stuttgart in 1899 and at Stockholm Opera in 1902.  

Gillet på Solhaug begins with a brief introduction not a formal overture, and moves almost immediately to the core of the drama. At a drunken party, Knut Gaesling, a notorious thug spies,  Signe, a delicate maiden and swears he will marry her. His friend, Erik fra Haegge,  agrees, so as far as Knut is concerned the deal,is done whatever Signe might think. . Marriage as horse trading. Knut hasn’t reckoned on Margit, Signe’s strong willed older sister . In a long and moving soliloquy “Vel var det, han gik”, she describes herself: The bride of Solhaug, wealthy but so desperately unhappy she longs for death.  The part is written for a mezzo with good lower resonance, suggesting Margit’s inner strength. As Knut sneers, Margit should have been a priest. Signe is written for high soprano, suggesting innocence, the music around her skipping innocently.  Seven years before, Margit and Gudmund Alfsøn had pledged their love. now he’s an outlaw and she’s married another man.  Margit tries to hide her feelings but the music says what she can’t, but with a clean, pure chastity that futsn her character. Gudmund’s a harpist: Stenhammer lets his music sing.  

In the second act, the feast at Solhaug is in full swing, drunken guests carousing to the sounds of  Hardanger fiddle, scored for modern orchestra. Stenhammer’s background in writing for voice, choir and orchestra comes to the fore, providing an ironic backdrop to the action unfolding. Knut’s machinations are brutal,Gudmund’s declaration of love for Signe is thrown into chill perspective. But Margit dominates above all.  Her lines are grave and dignified.  The purity of Margit’s line expresses something deep in her soul.  What a pity the English translations are risible. “How should I quiver my magic lay”(“Hvor skulde jeg kvade” in Danish, “Wie woll’t ich singen” in German) and “I’d fain fling it down to the neckan hard by” (“Skaenke den til nøkken dernede”). Margit’s mixing poison. 

A long, mysterious passage, with low woodwinds describes the night scene, when then guests depart.  Suddenly, the pace accelerates. High winds and brass and a swooping string diminuendo suggest alarm.  What is happening in the darkness  ?  In I morgen så drager vel Gudmund herfra, lit by mournful bassoons, Margit sings of a child born blind, whose sight us restored by witchcraft. But the magic can’t last : the child falls blind again, but this time with the pain of knowing what he’s lost.  In contrast, Bengt’s bluff, crude music underlines Margit’s torment.  Though they’ve been married three years. he still thinks he’s done her a favour because she once was poor. He’s only saved from drinking the poison when news arrives from outside. Knut’s defeated, Gudmund’;s won favour with the King and will marry Signe. Bengt lives, but Margit can’t go on. Her final aria “Skaemennede engel, fromme og milde” is powerful :  better to renounce the worlds than endure a living death.   Wonderful, shimmering string textures, Gudmund and Signe join in with wonder, and a choir in reverent, clean tones, sings about rays of light, emanating from Heaven.  Although photos of early stagings show elaborate furnishings and  sets. Margit’s story is, fundamentally, one of renunciation. Hence the purity of Stenhammer’s setting. Wagnerian or Verdian excess would not work quite so well. Margit, for all the intensity of her passions, is essentially a country girl whose instincts lie with Nature.   

This performance was conducted by Henrik Schaefer with the Symphony Orchestra of Norrköping and Choruses, recorded in in August 2015 in connection with Swedish Radio. Mtilda Paulsson sang Margit, Karolina Andersson sang Signe. Per Håkan Precht sang Gudmund, ,Frederick Zetterström sang Bengt, Erik Lundt sang Erik and Matthias Zachariassen sang Knut.  Definitely a recommendation ! Please also see my piece on Hugo Wolf Das Fest auf Solhaug HERE, where Wolf;s incidental music is blended with a very good modern narration, very much in the spiuruit of 19th century German story telling drama.

Original Source: Swedish opera : Stenhammer’s Ibsen Gillet på Solhaug.

Lost no more : Stravinsky Rimsky-Korsakov Gergiev Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky’s lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg  This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work. It was a sanctification of the city of St Petersburg itself and its role in shaping modern music.  Hence the speeches on the broadcast, and the sincere emotion shown on the faces of the musicians of the Mariinsky Orchestra as they listened. A male wind player’s lower lip wobbled.  A harpist leaned her head on her instrument, to hide genuine tears. Other players blinked, looking downwards. We don’t often see hard-boiled professionals like that, but the sense of occasion must have been overwhelming.

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song was written when Stravinsky heard the news of the death of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in June 1908. Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky’s teacher, mentor and close friend: the sorrow Stravinsky must have felt was channelled into the piece, completed in a very short period, and premiered in January 1909. Akthough Stravinsky remebered it fondly, the manuscript was thought lost, until, by chance, renovations to the Mariiinsky’s old building in 2014 revealed a cache of uncatalogued papers which included 83 orchestral parts used in the first (and only) performance.  Read Stephen Walsh’s account here and listen to Natalya Braginskaya before th broadcast). The parts had lain, unnoticed through the Revolution, after which the city was renamed Leningrad, and subject to one of the most brutal sieges in modern history. Stravinsky’s Funeral Song survived the Tsars, the Nazis and the collapse of Communism: Stravinsky’s modernism wasn’t popular with Stalin. By honouring Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov together in this way, Gergiev, the Mariinsky and the city of St Petersburg are making a powerful statement

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song (Chante funèbre) begins with ominous dark chords. It’s a slow march, the gloom lit with rustling strings and figures that seem to leap sharply upwards in protest against the gloom.  A solo French horn outlines a melody. The full orchestra joins in, and the music rises almost to crescendo before falling back. Prostrate, but not defeated. The strings surge and a group of horns take up momentum.  A hushed, mysterious near silence, bassoons, double basses, and full flow is restored.  The timpani rumble, and strange lingering chords repeat. Intense anguish, then a very short return to peace, of a kind, with the harps and low winds murmuring.

Though Stravinsky’s Funeral Song is short, it’s very rich.  Stravinsky’s clearly thinking of Rimsky-Korsakov’s great orchestral dramas. Thoughtfully, Gergiev preceded it with the Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya , which premiered in the Mariinsky in February 1907, with the same conductor who did the Funeral Song two years later . The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya is an astonishing piece, illuminated with intense colours and vivid imagery.  It describes an idealized city in Old Russia, which, when attacked by the Tatars, is saved by a mystery fog which makes it invisible, though its bells, prancing horses and pipes can be heard,  tantalizingly, in the distance above the lakes and forests.  Do we hear Kitezh in the last, lingering chords of the Funeral Song? The piece is something of a Gergiev trademark, for he’s championed it passionately for years. It was a sensational hit when he conducted it in London in 1994. You need the full work for maximum impact, but in this concert, the Suite worked fine, and the performance was intensely moving.

Think on the swirling, lustrous motifs that depict the magic fog that conceals the Invisible City.  then think of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, which premiered in Paris in June 1910.  In The Firebird, Stravinsky quotes Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey the Immortal (1902) which premiered in St Petersburg in 1905.  Indeed The Firebird incorporates two separate legends into one ballet with great effect.  In Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey an ugly monster has a daughter who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold as he is but she falls in love. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight, on whom the plot pivots, is defined by the wild ostinato. The most inventive music, though, surrounds Kashchey’s daughter Kashcheyvna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry, or even Brünnhilde. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathize.

Stravinsky’s Firebird inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal. The Firebird is a magical figure which materializes out of the air, leading the Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Yet again, the “characters” are defined by music.  The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. 

Although Gergiev has conducted The Firebird so often  he could almost do it on autopilot, on this occasion his focus was so intense that the performance was extraordinary. When Gergiev is this good, he’s better than anyone else.  Absolute finesse, the Mariinsky playing barely above the point of audibility, but with magical lustre, then exploding into the wild, demonic passages with the energy and precision of a corps de ballet. Mournful bassoons, exotic clarinets, celli and basses plucked  pizzicato like a choir singing vocalise.  Once again, we’re in a magical dimension like the fog that lifted Kitezh beyond mortal ken.  The “Firebird” theme returned, richer and deeper than before, but how does the piece end ?  With strong, emphatic chords repeated again and again. Like in  the Funeral Song, like The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.  Presenting the three pieces together almost seamlessly, Gergiev revealed their connections, and the inner artistic logic that linked the two composers together.   An outstanding experience. Enjoy and marvel : the concert is available on demand for approx 88 days on medici tv.   Please see my numerous other pieces on Stravinsky by following  the link “Stravinsky” below and on the right.

Original Source: Lost no more : Stravinsky Rimsky-Korsakov Gergiev Mariinsky

Death or Liberty ? Gossec Grande Messe des Morts

François-Xavier Roth conducted François Joseph Gossec’s Grande Messe des morts with Les Siècles and the Wiener Singakademie last week in Vienna, now broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Since Roth conducted an astonishing Berlioz Grand Messe des morts at the Royal Albert Hall, London, two weeks ago (please read my review here), this is a good opportunity to hear both Requiems by the same conductor, whose expertise in French repertoire is unequalled, as fluent in early music as he is in the contemporary avant garde, Roth’s insights are always refreshing.

Gossec (1734-1829), a protégé of Rameau, was, in his own way, as innovative as Rameau was in his own time, and as Berlioz was to become in the future.  His Grande Messe, written in 1761, is a forward-facing, youthful work which, upon publication twenty years later, caught the spirit of a France on the verge of revolutionary change.  It’s inspired by the spirit of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, all of whom were his contemporaries.

Gossec’s Grand Messe begins with assertive, almost explosive chords, taken up by a livelier melody on pipes and fiddles. Berlioz’s Grand Messe, with its mysterious, searching lines, seems almost “modern” in a kind of 20th century ambiguity. Yet Gossec isn’t writing faux Petit Trianon s: he was a farmer’s son in a time when many people had genuine rural roots.  The “folksiness” means something.  These  confident airs give way to a sophisticated Introitus in three parts, grave, allegro and largo, where voices weave intricate patterns, individual voices kept clear and bright.  The mood is vibrant.  The female soloists dominate (in Vienna, Chantal Santon-Jeffery and Anaïk Morel).  Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly at all, I kept thinking of Marianne, her breasts exposed, leading the nation to Liberty.  Peasant girl as antithesis to King and the Virgin Mary. Breaking the link between Church and State was a founding principle of the Republic. No wonder Gossec’s Grande Messe captured the public mood. The deceased here will not die but will be remembered in glory.

“Requiem aeternum ” and “et lux perpetua” aren’t mere worrds, but inspire the two graduale that follow: uplifting choral pieces that move briskly. Berlioz integrates choir and orchestra with greater complexity but Gossec has brio.  While Berlioz’s Dies Irae is hushed and sombre, Gossec’s Dies Irae is angular, with a distinctive motif of sharply accentuated rhythms. His Tuba mirium blasts with the baleful force of massed trumpets, the “tuba” here referring to the Trumpets which will sound at the end of time, waking the dead.  Again, Gossec uses a solo voice, not a choir.  Because Gossec’s Grande Messe evolves over no less than 24 parts, each sequence is relative short, and highly varied Some sections are for solo voice and orchestra, others for combined soloists and orchestra, others for choir and orchestra.  This diversity generates momentum and energy, which comes naturally to Roth and a period ensemble like  Les Siècles. No surprise that Gossec’s Grande Messe is their speciality. They’ve been doing it for some time.The photo above comes from their performance in October 2013 at the Chapelle Royale in Paris, which was broadcast on French TV and radio. Rumour has it that it will be released on CD.  Definitely a must-buy since that performance is much more vivacious and spirited than the Vienna version.

After the Amen, a short break before the Vado et non revertar, an unusual interjection into a Mass, coming as it does from the pre Christian Book of Job, though it links to the idea of resurrection. The staccato patterns heard earlier (as in the Dies Irae), but with the Pie Jesu, the dead are granted rest.  Everyone’s singing together again, and the final Requiem Aeternum draws everything together.  Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts  is grander in every way, reflecting a new era when Europe was on the cusp of a new urbanized, industrial era. Gossec’s not too bothered about complex orchestration and large-scale forces so much as freedom of spirit.  Besides, his Grande Mess des morts harks back to the period that made modernity possible in the first place.

BTW, Gossec was not Belgian. Belgium didn’t exist as an independent monarchy before 1830.

Original Source: Death or Liberty ? Gossec Grande Messe des Morts

Cavalli La Calisto La Nuova Musica, Wigmore Hall

At the Wigmore Hall, London an outstanding Cavalli La Calisto, with La Nuova Musica,  La Nuova Musica enliven their work with the same adventurous spirit that one imagines would have motivated 17th century Venetian audiences.  Historically informed performance isn’t merely a matter of avoiding vibrato, but of understanding the spirit  of the times. Venice in 1651 was an exciting place, the go-ahead centre of the Mediterranean world.  Opera itself was a “new” art, still evolving, and Venetian audiences were very sophisticated.  La Nuova Musica’s La Calisto was vibrant with energetic verve a tightly-focussed performance, where the filigree intricacies could shine.  

La Calisto is mythological allegory, but the characters are defined with dramatic flair.  Calisto (Lucy Crowe) is a beautiful nymph, a handmaiden of Diana, (Jurgita Adamontyé) whose acolytes are sworn to virginity.  Giove, (George Humphreys)  tries to seduce her to no avail, until he disguises himself as Diana.  Calisto, having tasted lust, can’t understand why the “real” Diana despises sex.  Everyone else is trying to seduce Diana, with no luck. Although the reason might be obvious to us now, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that the ancient Greeks didn’t know, given their tolerance for same sex relationships.  Chances are, the point wasn’t lost either on 17th century Venetians. . Like Cavalli’s other operas, (Please read my piece Crazier than Jason, Cavalli’s Elena)  gender bending and illicit love gave audiences a naughty frisson. Calisto talks about “Diana’s kisses” to an older woman, played by a man  Endymione (Tim Mead) a counter tenor. manages to seduce the asexual Diana  For this, she’s maligned for being fickle !  Giove as the fake Diana, learns from Endymione that Diana isn’t as pure as he thought. Giove as Diana tries to seduce Calisto again but his wife Giunone (Rachel Kelly) won’t have any fooling around and turns Calisto into a bear.

La Nuova Musica, conducted by David Bates, had perhaps the finest specialist cast in this country,  thus,wisely concentrated focus on the performance, not the staging. Thus we could enjoy detail, like the way different voices came together at the end of a line, hovering together before falling silent. We could also focus on the variety of musical invention, sometimes sublime and at other times, deliberately grotesque  I love the dance sequences. You could luxuriate in the sheer beauty of the singing and playing, delighting in details like the flourish of a harpsichord, seemingly wayward but very much integrated into the ensemble : the joker in the pack, perhaps, for La Calisto is funny: serious ideas tackled with irreverent wit. Listen here on BBC Radio 3 for approx 30 days.
Please also see my piece oin La Nuova Musicas’s Cesti Orontea at the Wigmore Hall

Cavalli operas seem to need high standards. Although La Calisto is almost mainstream these days, I don’t think anything but the idiomatic best does them justice.  There is a wonderful DVD  with René Jacobs  and Concerto Vocale, recorded at La Monnaie in March 1996. . Staging was by Herbert Wernicke, demonized by anti-moderns, but it’s brilliant. The stage is small and claustrophobic, like the enclosed world of the gods. But the characters look out on stars, and rise up into the rafters borne aloft by pulleys.  Stars and spangles all over the costumes too : the image of “night” illuminated by wonder. 

Original Source: Cavalli La Calisto La Nuova Musica, Wigmore Hall

Reviewing Debussy’s Arabesque 1 with its Impressionist palette

It’s been years since I learned Claude Debussy’s coloristic Arabesque No. 1, so my recent revisit was a reminder of how a solid learning foundation can deepen a musical reconnection.

Reviewing an “old” piece brings a renewed opportunity to delve into its character, form, structure, harmonic flow, phrasing, etc. while keeping an open mind about fingering choices. Fundamental “housekeeping” revisions may spring from experiences with music of diverse eras that have widened a music learner’s horizons on technical and musical levels.

The counterpoint of J.S. Bach, for example, spills into the “voicing” arena, even as we advance the clock 200 years to a musical period that embraces moods, colors, and blurred harmonies. We cross-reference and cross-fertilize as we practice Baroque Inventions, Preludes, Fugues; Classical era sonatas; Romantic period repertoire, and explore a rich repository of tonalities intermingled with dissonance. The journeys, regardless of historical period, are complementary.

Naturally, teaching a particular composition is another form of revisit that stretches our perspective and ripens our understanding of a composition.

The Debussy Arabesque No. 1, has been part of my learning and mentoring archive for years, yet this latest dip into its palette of colors produced new awakenings. With a long held embrace of layered learning, that included very slow tempo practicing, framed by a singing-tone, and seamless legato, I savored this latest journey of discovery.

Original Source: Reviewing Debussy’s Arabesque 1 with its Impressionist palette