I had a request for “MORE CHOPIN!” which made me realize that I’ve been neglecting the poor fellow — and he’s such a favorite of mine! I’ve been working on two new Chopin nocturnes, and I’ll hopefully be ready to record them soon. In the meantime, however, here’s one I’ve played for a long time, in a freshly remastered recording.
I like what I wrote about this piece when I posted this recording in its earlier, less acoustically pristine form, so I’ll say it again: It’s organic, and sounds almost improvised — except that it is impossibly perfect in every detail. Its soundscape is vast, deep, and richly pianistic, but look at the construction and you’ll see the spare elegance of Bach. It has a loving tenderness, and a longing, that’s unlike anything else, yet seems instantly familiar. And it’s gorgeous.
Nocturne Op 15 No 2 (in F sharp major)
There’s nothing quite like learning to play a piece of music to really get inside it. With this one, like many I’ve shared here, I knew it was excellent music before I started learning it — but once I’m inside it, once I’m feeling through the piece with my own hands and working through its many parts with the microscope of learning, once I really start to “get it” about the music … it’s just staggering how good it is. It just floors me. I don’t know how much of that comes across in my playing — certainly I’m only communicating a small shadow of that experience — but I hope you can share my sense of wonder that we have this music in our world.
This is a very familiar piece (to piano aficionados, anyway) — but you’ll find Don’s performance a little refreshingly unfamiliar. It’s not a wild departure from custom, but there’s just a subtle tip in the balance in his performance that makes the feeling of the piece quite different.
In the last entry I mentioned the question of foreground and background. When most pianists play this piece, they put the right hand squarely in the foreground: what you hear is a series of speedy cascades down, a fun bit of finger gymnastics. But when Don plays it, he balances foreground between the left and the right, and what emerges is the slower underlying chord progression. Instead of a nervously flitting thing, it becomes a smoothly unfolding one. That reading brings us to what is to me the essential nature of Schubert: a tiny thing with a vast interior, a world opening from a single moment.
Impromptu D899 No 4 (a.k.a. Op 90 No 4, in A flat minor)
There is one more recording from Don’s living room I’ll post. After that, he recently made two more in the concert hall that are quite special that I’d like to share with you.
This was the first Brahms I ever learned to play. It looked to me like a relatively easy piece, simply because it doesn’t have all that many notes — but I was wrong: never having played Brahms, I didn’t recognize the difficulty that was there. Brahms doesn’t always divide his music into clear layers of melody and accompaniment; he’ll have bits of melodic thread appearing in different voices, different layers. None of these threads is complete in itself, but they form a complete whole that doesn’t emerge from any single place. Much like Renaissance polyphony, the “foreground” of the music emerges from a delicate interplay of layers.
So yes, not many notes, but this piece turned out to require a great deal of care in fingering and voicing, to give just the right weight to each note, and the right shape to the many parts. After I “got it” with this one, I found it much easier to work my way into other Brahms. Playing music requires a certain empathy with the composer; it is much like making friends.
Though it proved a bit tricky to learn, it’s certainly not tricky to listen to: the music is pure bliss, and though it passes through many landscape-changing shades of light and dark, nothing breaks the floating bubble between the first note and the last.
Here’s an older piece of mine, newly remastered. I’ve gone back and forth in the past on whether I like this one, but I like it very much today, so I’m publishing it!
The title is based on my mishearing of a Tori Amos lyric (from Cruel). I generally go for titles that are evocative and somehow seem to fit, without actually having any clear meaning that listeners will try to impose on the piece — I want the title to be an opening into the music, not a box to stuff it in.
Another one of those “openings into the music” is the little epigraphs I often put at the end of the piece. I almost always choose both the quote and the title after writing the music, so they’re more a reflection on where I ended up than an explanation of what I was doing. The epigraph for this piece is a hokku by Masahide:
Now that my storehouse
has burned down, nothing
conceals the moon.
In a Perfectly Wounded Sky
For those following along with the audio engineering side of things, I used a touch of a look-ahead limiter on this one (which I usually don’t do), because of the huge variance between the attacks on the harsher chords and the very quiet intervening sections. I also cranked the scaling on the Gain Shaper a hair higher than usual.
For those interested in music notation, here is the score. Fun with parallel fifths!
I’m a fellow of diverse musical tastes, and there are a great many composers I love who don’t appear in the meager list over on the right of this page. So it’s a delight to post this recording, because I get to add a “Schubert” category. Yay for Schubert!
This is another one of the recordings I made in the living room of my teacher, Don Betts. He’s playing a little gem of Schubert’s that one doesn’t hear often — in fact, I’d never heard it at all until he played it for me. When I looked up some recordings by others, I was surprised to find that most people play it very fast, even presto, making it a silly sort of sing-songy horse gallop. Now admittedly I’m a slow tempo kind of guy, and heck, maybe Schubert intended it to be a silly horse gallop, but man do I ever prefer Don’s tempo.
Schubert’s music is a rarified world, full of repeating simple patterns built from the same few simple ingredients, where subtle changes create tremendous moments — just a shift from minor to major, and a whole new world opens up. In Don’s performance, you can feel the weight of each of those little moments, the overwhelmingly vast interior of this tiny little world, like one of Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings.
Piano Piece D946 No 1 (in E flat minor)
Speaking of repeating patterns, there’s a stretch at about 1:40 that sounds almost like a bit of 20th century minimalism. I wonder if Philip Glass likes Schubert? (Hmm. Apparently so. You know, you could probably get a decent Glass parody by taking some random Schubert, and repeating each measure 2-4 times.)
I tried a slightly different approach with the sound on this one than with the Arabesque. It still doesn’t sound quite right — honestly, I wish Don would come to my studio to make some recordings, but he wanted to do this at his house, and when he decides that things should be a certain way, his mind is not easy to change! I guess I sympathize: it’s a bit of a hike over here for him. Anyway, if anybody feels like comparing, let me know what you think of the different sound.
Continuing with the work of remastering all my existing home recordings, here’s a Chopin nocturne I posted almost exactly one year ago. It is a subtle, spare thing, and its spareness makes it much more difficult than it sounds. Listening to this recording again, I think I could play it better now; perhaps I’ll record it again in the future. A really fine piece of music is a lifelong exploration, so I’m certainly not opposed to posting new versions of pieces I’ve already recorded! Still, this recording is decent — the idea of the music certainly comes across, and the new sound really helps.
Nocturne Op 55 No 1 (in F minor)
My favorite moment of many favorites in the piece: the magical chromatic spiral toward the end (it begins at 4:25 in this recording). It was a delight picking that apart one note at a time, figuring out how Chopin put it together — then feeling it sinking comfortably into muscle memory, the ears and the fingers an organic living whole. I marvel at Chopin, and playing his music is humbling — but the wonderful thing about being a musician is that I get to make it my own all the same. (If any of you out there let out a longing sigh as you read that: it’s never too late to start (or restart) piano lessons!)
In the Hands is primarily for my own recordings, but today I have a special exception to make: over the summer, I recorded Don Betts, my piano teacher, playing in his home. Don has made a great many excellent recordings over the years — including the Chopin album available on this web site — but these recordings we made in his living room are something entirely different. They have a special kind of magic about them. The Chopin album was recorded in a concert hall, and it has a concert hall feeling: it’s Don the performer, playing a big piano in a big space, and with a big manner to match. The way I really think of him, though, is Don the teacher: playing to an audience of one, not performing so much as sharing, hoping you will share his love and his sense of wonder for the music. These recordings are the first that truly capture the Don Betts I know best.
We recorded several pieces, and after much fiddling with EQ, I finally have the first recording prepared and sounding quite decent (though more work is needed!).
Recording in this setting posed some challenges: I had to adapt a recording setup designed for my home studio to an entirely different piano in an entirely different space. It took some experimenting to get mic positions that worked. Don’s piano isn’t a concert instrument, and there was a funny buzz to contend with, plus the noises from outside — you can even hear Don’s fingernails clicking on the keys! I worry a little that listeners used to hearing clinically perfect studio recordings will be put off, but I think you’ll find that there is so much life in this music, your mind won’t notice the surface details for long. Close your eyes and imagine: you’re standing next to a master of the art, in his home, sharing with you what he loves.
This is perhaps my favorite of the recordings I’ve made for In the Hands — and the remastering really helps. The piece is very low throughout, and the low notes before had a murky, cottony quality. Now they’re rich and clear, and all the subtle little motions in the depths shine through. I only wish you all could hear this without all the MP3 artifacts!
My commentary on the piece itself is in the original posting.