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8.578180 - PERFECT PIANO - Best Loved Classical Piano Music
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Perfect Piano
Best loved classical piano music

 

The piano is one of the most universal and popular of all instruments and can be found the world over in all kinds of places, from huge and shiny grand pianos in the most prestigious concert halls to battered old uprights that provide entertainment in pubs and bars. The flexibility of its nature derives from its character as both one of the easiest of musical instruments from which to obtain a sound and on which you can play lots of notes at once, but also one of the most challenging to play really well—especially given the remarkable demands made by composers who have invested their highest creativity in writing music for its myriad possibilities.

The preoccupation with obtaining sound from one or more strings through the actions of plucking, striking or scraping, has been going on since prehistory. Today’s piano is the result of refinements that have gone on since mankind discovered that creating some kind of firm frame for your strings worked best, thicker string were better for low notes, pulling your strings tighter made the pitch higher, that dampening or shortening a string’s resonating length also created different notes, and that stretching them over some kind of hollow shape gave a fuller, louder sound. Very early keyboards seem to have been in use in ancient Roman times, and keyboard instruments with a plectrum action were certainly in use by the mid 14th century. The direct ancestral lines of descent to the piano make it a hybrid, with the hammered dulcimer having the most direct technical connection. This instrument lacks a keyboard, but its hand-held beaters bounce off tightly tuned metal strings allowing the notes to ring freely, making it possible to blend harmony and melody and to contrast dynamics as the player sees fit. It was exactly this action of striking and immediately releasing the strings that was the greatest problem when it came to designing an instrument of this kind with an effective keyboard action.

The origins of what at first was called the ‘pianoforte’, literally ‘soft-loud’ in Italian, can be traced to around 1700 in Florence, where instrument-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) is credited with inventing the ‘arpi cimbalo del piano e’ forte’. Common keyboard instruments of the time were the harpsichord, that makes sound by plucking the strings with a quill and can only change dynamic through a shift in register, or the much simpler clavichord, in which the strings are hit and the notes sustained by metal tangents. This has beautiful expressive qualities and was a favourite of many composers for domestic use, but has too soft a sound for public performance.

It took many decades for the pianoforte to make any headway in terms of popular use. While the more ubiquitous harpsichord remained popular the piano struggled to gain a foothold, largely due to the complicated escapement mechanism required to make a hammer hit a string and then immediately rebound to allow the sound to resonate. Rivalries between individual makers and in types of design between Vienna and London were hot topics amongst 18th century musicians, with composers such as Mozart writing in detail about response, tone, reliability and cost when weighing up which instrument was best. For a while there was a fashion for all kinds of added ‘effects’ worked by pedals to beef up the piano experience and turn it into a household orchestra. These included drums, cymbals, and all kinds of materials put between hammers and strings to imitate harps, lutes, bassoons and the like. As the 19th century progressed and the piano’s identity matured this trend declined, with influential composer-players such Carl Czerny (1791–1857) dismissing these additions as “childish toys”, and Johann Hummel (1778–1837) declaring that all of these extra pedals were ‘of no value either to the performer or the instrument.’

Important evolutionary leaps continued during the 19th century, including the introduction of the felt-covered hammer. By the mid-1800s the move from wooden frames to much stronger metal constructions was well underway, allowing greater thickness and tension in the strings and therefore much greater dynamic range. The typical piano note actually uses three strings, with the lowest notes using two or sometimes a single copper-wound string with extra thickness. Multiple strings not only increase volume, but also deliver a much richer sound. With around 230 strings divided over 88 notes in a typical modern piano, it is worth sparing a thought for the piano tuner who has to make sure each note is correctly in tune with itself, let alone in tune with every other note on the instrument.

With all of these technical advances it may seem strange that some pianists today have made something of a specialism of performing on antique or reproduction ‘fortepiano’ instruments modelled on examples from the past. The differences in touch and timbre between old and modern instruments are considerable, with a pungency of sound and an innate sense of drama in earlier pianos that composers of the time knew how to exploit to the full. There is also a huge value in hearing music as the composer would have expected it to sound, and how audiences would have experienced such works when the ink was hardly dry on the page.

There are a number of composers whose role in the development of the piano as a true solo instrument have to be mentioned. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) lies on the cusp of the invention of the piano, but Bach’s collection of 48 preludes and fugues The Well-Tempered Clavier is for several reasons a cornerstone of all keyboard music, not least for its use of the kind of ‘equal temperament’ tuning that allows today’s pianist to work in every musical key equally effectively. J.S. Bach’s fifth child Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) is seen as standing at the transition between the Baroque and Classical eras in music, and his empfindsamer Stil or ‘sensitive style’ can even trace a forward line into Romantic music with its dramatic contrasts of mood. C.P.E. Bach favoured the clavichord, making his many sonatas well suited to the modern piano, and his technical treatise An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments has been influential ever since its twopart publication in 1753 and 1762.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was one of the first great composers to take advantage of the of the new fortepiano’s potential, and the best of his piano concertos elevated the genre to new heights of both form and expressive depth. Mozart was a great influence on the young Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), who became a crucial and transformative figure in just about every genre of Western music. Beethoven’s piano concertos are packed with innovation, and his piano sonatas were dubbed ‘The New Testament’ of the piano repertoire by 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow, with Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well- Tempered Clavier being ‘The Old Testament’. Franz Schubert (1797–1828) was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral, and his remarkable use of the piano both as an accompaniment to his many songs and in his greatest sonatas was to have a considerable influence on 19th century composers such as Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Most great composers for the piano were themselves performers, and their style of playing can increasingly be traced in their works as musical history moved from the narrower fashions and formalities of Classicism into the freer and more poetic world of the Romantic era. Irish pianist and composer John Field (1782–1837) was influential as a performer and teacher in Europe and Russia. He was admired for his sensitive touch at the keyboard, and is credited with inventing the lyrical Nocturne, a form taken up by Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849). Chopin’s piano technique was considered unequalled in his time, and his compositions expanded the potential of the instrument as a poetic and virtuoso means of musical expression. Virtuosity is a central feature of the works of Franz Liszt (1811–1886), whose playing at the peak of his fame caused the phenomenon of ‘Lisztomania’, a kind of celebrity infatuation more familiar with rock stars today. By contrast, Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) always maintained a more sober connection with tradition, though the symphonic scale of his two piano concertos was a new departure, and his tremendous sets of piano Variations and other works cast their influence on 20th century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Anton Webern (1883–1945).

Russian pianist and composer Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943) was one of the first whose fame was in part due to the invention of the phonograph record. The huge popularity of his Second Piano Concerto and other works for piano have become emblematic of the lushly lyrical late-Romantic style against which many 20th century composers rebelled. Béla Bartók (1881–1945) for instance found inspiration in his native Hungarian folk music, embracing the piano’s qualities as a percussion instrument as well as one for conjuring the illusion of smooth melodic lines. Bartók was influenced by the French composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918), whose piano music skilfully blended centuries of tradition with vivid ‘impressionist’ depictions of landscapes and the sea. Debussy’s younger contemporary Maurice Ravel (1875 –1937) also represents a distinctly French sound, exploring the more extrovert style of Liszt when compared with Debussy’s more intimate worlds, though both clearly held their musical ancestors in high regard, as can be seen in titles such as Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.

The differing flavours in music for the piano between countries is inevitably connected to the culture in which composers have been immersed, but there are also ‘schools’ of playing that can have their effect on the way piano music is written and performed. The Russian piano school is the most distinctive of these in the way lineage can be traced from teacher to student, but also in its openness to influence from abroad and its cultivation of artistic individuality. Anton Rubinstein founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1861 and engaged the best professors available, teachers who had in turn been students of Beethoven, Clementi, Czerny, Chopin and Liszt. Not long afterwards the Moscow Conservatory was established by Anton Rubenstein’s brother Nikolai, with an equally strong piano tradition. These institutions have resulted in a rather special generation-togeneration continuity that can be boasted by few other conservatoires. Great pianists Sviatoslav Richter (1915–1997) and Emil Gilels (1916–1985) both studied with Heinrich Neuhaus in Moscow for instance, and their remarkable skills provided Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953) with the ideal vehicle for his powerful wartime Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8.

Arguably the most identifiable piano sound is that of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932–1982). Gould retired from giving concerts at the age of 31 in order to focus on recording, providing us with a unique and influential legacy which has the music of Johann Sebastian Bach at its heart. His unusual technique involved sitting very low at the keyboard, the mechanism of his piano adjusted for an immediacy of response that make his recordings all the more distinctive.

Use of the piano is of course not restricted to solo repertoire, and its function as an accompanying instrument or an equal partner in all kinds of chamber music would fill another entire essay. In Baroque orchestral music the harpsichord can often be heard as a ‘continuo’ or support instrument, its sound adding harmonic depth and enhancing rhythm amongst the string instruments. The modern piano can enhance an orchestral sound in different ways, providing a sense of weight and mood as well as rhythmic impact and shimmering radiance in, for instance, the symphonies of Bohuslav Martin (1890–1959).

Expanding the piano’s sound-world has long been the preoccupation of composer-pianists, but John Cage (1912–1992) went further than most, being considered the inventor of the ‘prepared piano’ in which objects such as metal screws and paper are placed between or over the strings to create new sonorities. Cage cited the composer Henry Cowell (1897–1965) as an influence in this development, Cowell’s music sometimes asking for the player to pluck, sweep or strike the strings with the hand rather than using the conventional keyboard. There are of course worlds of piano music beyond the ‘classical’ realm, with jazz pianists and others creating their own very wide variety of styles and techniques. When it comes to the piano it really does seem as if we are confronted with an embarrassment of riches at every turn.

 1  Beethoven: Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, ‘Für Elise’

If you’ve ever been near a piano in a public space then you are likely to have heard Für Elise, or at least its first few bars. This is one of many short piano pieces Beethoven wrote throughout his life, and it is thought that this Bagatelle in A minor was composed for Thérèse Malfatti, whom Beethoven had hoped to marry. Thérèse gave him no encouragement and the match was strongly opposed by her parents, so this little piece from 1810, the year of Beethoven’s rejection as a suitor, is a poignant reminder of the great composer’s misfortunes in love.

 2  Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28. No. 15 in D flat major, ‘Raindrop’

Fryderyk Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes were in part written on the island of Majorca, where the composer sought to escape the wintry dampness of Paris. Of these, the powerful Prelude No. 15 in D flat major is one of the most famous, its repeating A flat note thought to describe the dripping of raindrops, though its dark mood led pianist Alfred Cortot to subtitle it, ‘But Death is here, in the shadows.’

 3  J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – I. Aria

Bach’s Goldberg Variations were said to have been commissioned by the Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony in Dresden for performance by the young harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to amuse him during his hours of sleeplessness, though this tale remains somewhat speculative. Whatever the truth behind the origins of this masterpiece it remains a remarkable testimony to Bach’s skill in counterpoint, the beautiful Aria on which the thirty variations are based taking the form of a dance called a Sarabande.

 4  Grieg: Lyric Pieces, Book 8, Op. 65 – Bryllupsdag pa Troldhaugen (‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’)

Edvard Grieg integrated Norwegian folkmusic into his composing style, and his popular Lyric Pieces enhanced his reputation for working in smaller musical forms. The festive ‘Wedding-Day at Troldhaugen’ is one of his best-loved works, and was originally titled ‘The well-wishers are coming’; written as ‘a present to my wife on 11 June (our wedding day)’.

 5  Debussy: Suite bergamasque – III. Claire de lune

Debussy’s Suite bergamasque is a prime example of his incomparable skill in conjuring impressionistic visual scenes in music, harking back as it does to the romantic Rococo world of paintings by Antoine Watteau. Claire de lune takes its melancholy mood from a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine, suggesting a ‘sad and beautiful moonlight which makes the birds in the trees dream and sob with ecstasy’.

 6  Liszt: Grande Etude de Paganini, S141/R3b: No. 3 in G sharp minor, ‘La campanella’

Franz Liszt’s virtuosity as a pianist led to a phenomenon called ‘Lisztomania’ at the height of his celebrity, a ‘Liszt fever’ stoked by pieces such as La campanella. This work had its origins in a concerto by the renowned violin virtuoso Nicolò Paganini, another musician responsible for the fashion for spectacular musical feats in Liszt’s time. La campanella is one of many such works that make demands on the pianist comparable with those made for violinists by Paganini.

 7  Field: Nocturne No. 2 in C minor

Irish composer and pianist John Field is credited with inventing the Nocturne, a poetic style that reflected his own delicate and transparent way of performing. The typical Nocturne is characterised by a lyrical, often song-like melody over rippling harmonies in the left-hand in a form that became influential on composers such as Chopin.

 8  Ravel: Jeux d’eau

Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eux—literally ‘water games’ or ‘fountains’, is a light-hearted tone poem that describes ‘the noise of water and the musical sounds which one hears in its sprays, cascades and brooks.’ The nature of the piece is summed up by a quote written by Ravel onto his manuscript: ‘the river god laughing as the water tickles him…’

 9  Brahms: Rákóczi March, Anh. III/10

The Rákóczi March was the unofficial state anthem of Hungary until the 19th century, and both Liszt and Berlioz arranged it for use it in their own compositions. Brahms was introduced to Hungarian music by the émigré violinist Ede Reményi, and his skilful transcription of this ‘Hungarian March’ is the work of a young and ambitious composer revelling in this refreshingly energetic national idiom.

 10  Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, ‘Pathetique’ – II. Adagio cantabile

Hardly any composer is more closely associated with the piano sonata than Beethoven, and the Adagio cantabile from his ‘Pathetique’ sonata is one of his most exquisite sonata movements. Its beautifully natural and flowing melody has something of the character of a Schubert song, and Beethoven was clearly happy with it—repeating the tune no fewer than five times in its brief span.

 11  Chopin: Nocturne No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1

Among the many forms that Chopin made his own was the Nocturne, adopted and transformed from those by Irish pianist John Field. As with Field’s pieces, Chopin’s Nocturne is a lyrical piano piece offering, in name at least, a poetic vision of the night. The poignant feel of this First Nocturne may be related to Chopin’s move from his native Poland to Paris in 1830.

 12  Dvořák: 8 Humoresques, Op. 101, B. 187 – No. 7. Poco lento e grazioso in G flat major

Antonín Dvořák’s Eight Humoresques, Op. 101 are his last significant works for piano, their themes and general feel influenced by his time in America. The Humoresque No. 7 is by far the best known of the set. It used to be said that Dvo ák composed it while on a train journey inspired by the rhythms of the wheels on the tracks, but this has since been declared a myth.

 13  Liszt: 3 etudes de concert, S144/R5 – No. 3 in D flat major, ‘Un sospiro’

Liszt’s Trois études de concert combine aspects of technical development for the virtuoso pianist with music richly suitable for the concert hall. The third of these, Un sospiro or ‘A sigh’ sees the performer crossing hands in order to create a magical sense of flow, over which an expressive melody floats with deceptive ease.

 14  Schumann: Kinderszenen (‘Scenes of childhood’), Op. 15 – I. Von fremden Landern und Menschen (‘Of Foreign Lands and People’)

The ingenuous simplicity of Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen is reflected in their original title of Leichte Stücke or ‘Easy Pieces’. Each piece expresses some aspect of an adult's reminiscence of childhood or the child-like qualities his beloved Clara saw in him, and tender romance is certainly in the fragrant air of the miniature Von fremden Landern und Menschen.

 15  Chopin: Waltz No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2

Chopin adopted classic dance forms and turned them to his own expressive ends with consummate skill. This particular waltz ranges in mood from a yearning opening theme to the rapid notes of a twirling ballroom dance, contrasting with passages of the utmost tenderness.

 16  Satie: Gymnopedie No. 1

Erik Satie had a reputation as a highly eccentric figure in Parisian artistic circles, but his best-known work has come to epitomise that city’s poetic atmosphere. This is particularly true of the solemn Gymnopédies, though this title is in fact derived from the festival dance of naked boys in ancient Sparta.

 17  Rachmaninov: 5 Morceaux de fantasie, Op. 3 – No. 2. Prelude in C sharp minor

Rachmaninov’s darkly dramatic and impassioned Prelude in C sharp minor has become symbolic of soulful Russian melancholy. It was to prove an embarrassingly successful hit, a fact that at first brought Rachmaninov some pleasure and later some misgivings, as audiences everywhere clamoured for its inclusion in all of his recital programmes.

 18  Schubert: 4 Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899 – Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major

The title Impromptu suggests sudden inspiration, an idea typical of the careless rapture associated popularly with the Romantic era. Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major is packed both with rich emotional feelings and that sense of human drama that is never far away in his most inspired compositions.

Dominy Clements
© Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd


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