Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
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Posts tagged “Chopin”

Visiting the house of my composer friend Matthew Smith (who has an outstanding CD out now, by the way), I noticed the score to Chopin’s E minor prelude out on the piano. It turns out that his wife, children’s book illustrator and author Lauren Stringer, is taking piano lessons, and she has been working on it. I was delighted — the piece is a favorite of mine. I dug out my recording of it for her to hear, and decided it was high time that I release a remastered version.

The piece has been a popular one on In the Hands — people have left many comments on it — and I think that’s because it’s so popular with beginning piano students like Lauren. All of us who are, or once were, beginners owe Chopin our thanks for this piece: it is a great one, yet it’s within reach of a beginning pianist. (That’s not to undercut the task of learning it. Any pianist who has learned to play it well ought to be proud of their accomplishment! It is not in any way a trivial thing.)

I abhor the idea that material for beginners should be dumbed down. Simplicity is necessary, but simplicity need not be dumb. We are especially guilty of doing this to children, but it happens to beginners of all ages. It’s kind of bait and switch: somebody loves music so much that they find the courage to start taking lessons, then we give them music that’s not worth loving, holding off the real stuff until they’re more advanced. It’s disrespectful, and it’s counterproductive: the lessons of substance and meaning do not need to follow years and years after the lessons of reading and technique. We do the same thing with reading, with math — especially with math! — oh, don’t get me started.

I see it as a challenge to us composers: Chopin, who wrote some of the most difficult piano music out there, managed to produce this music of tremendous depth without needing to make it tremendously difficult. If he can do it, why can’t we? OK, actually, making something both great and simple is one of the most difficult artistic challenges there is, but it’s also one of the worthiest. Lauren certainly knows that: the best picture books can tell compelling stories that tackle layered, subtle, and difficult ideas using only a very few words and elemental artwork, and they are powerful for their simplicity. Her gorgeous latest book is a nice essay on how the choices we make in our perception of reality shape that reality and our lives — though she says it much more simply, and more effectively!

I’ve paired the E minor prelude with the E major one. The latter is a bit more difficult (mostly because of the wider stretches), but is also within a dedicated beginner’s reach, and also a great one. It has a wonderful chord progression, and a very interesting structure: we set out from the same point of departure three times (0:00, 0:28, 0:58), each time finding a new path with newly surprising modulations. I learned these two preludes one after the other, and think they make a great segue. I do like the big contrasts!

Prelude Op 28 No 4 (in E minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano
Prelude Op 28 No 9 (in E major)
Paul Cantrell, piano

Attention, beginners, would-be beginners, and especially those who say, “Oh, I wish I could learn to play the piano! But I’m just too old / too busy / too tonedeaf / too whatever.” Rubbish! Balderdash! Pish, piffle, and poppycock! It is never too late to start. Be bold! Lauren was; you can be too. Great music is not out of your reach.

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)
Paul Cantrell, piano

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.

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)
Paul Cantrell, piano

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!)

I wrote recently about the the danger that virtuosity can make us neglect the virtues of simplicity, and even neglect the music itself. That is true not only of a simple masterpiece like the prelude I was talking about, but also of technically difficult pieces — such as the Chopin ballades.

In everything Chopin writes, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to impress. But that’s exactly what the pianists we usually hear are striving to do: impress the contest judges, the critics, the public. The world we classical performers live in gives us very little room not to play big show pieces, or make everything we play into one.

Chopin’s third ballade suffers particularly from this problem. The ballades are all difficult, but it’s the easiest of them (sort of like the shortest Himalaya). It seems as though all the star performers I’ve heard end up trying to make it as hard as the others by plowing through it with virtuosic flare, and thus trivializing it.

What wonderful music it is that gets plowed under when that happens! I could spend the whole next month talking about this piece, about how Chopin plays with the sense of return, about his use of dissonance as an architectural device, about all those wonderful melodies … but for now, I’ll just leave you with this one thought to perhaps open a mental door: The melody that opens the piece is the stepping-off point for all that follows in the next two and a half minutes, but then it disappears, and the music goes somewhere else entirely. Listen for it. The experience of wanting that melody to return, and it not returning and not returning and then — that’s the force that shapes the piece.

Ballade Op 47 (in A flat major)
Paul Cantrell, piano

So this is my current take on the other, non-virtuosic side of Chopin’s third ballade. I actually recorded this several weeks ago, but found that listening back to the recording and hearing all the little nuances I could play slightly differently, all the little things I want to fix, all the different options in all the takes I’d already done, sent me into a tailspin of endless revision from which there would have been no return save in the back of a van wearing a straight jacket. (I mean me wearing the straight jacket, not the van.) So I give myself a little breather until I could make it through the process of editing, mastering, and posting the piece with my sanity (such as it is) intact.

Gosh, I sure play this piece differently than when I was 21 — more differently than I’d remembered. Better? Heck if I know; it’s too late at night to decide stuff like that. Don’s version is also quite different. And in a few years, I’ll probably play it yet another new way. It’s a cheerful thought: I take great comfort in knowing that it’s not possible for me to ever exhaust the interpretive possibilities of Chopin.

To conclude this trip down prelude memory lane (at least for the time being), here is the veeery first piece I worked on with Don Betts. I’ve actually hardly played this one since that first year of lessons, but I found it came back quickly. Is playing a piece like riding a bicycle? Maybe a little.

Prelude Op 28 No 4 (in E minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

Don always gives this one to his beginner students. At the time, although I’d had piano lessons for many years as a child, and had recently played piano in a dixie band, I was still really a beginner in many ways. I’d brought Louis Lortie’s recording of the Chopin études (or more accurately, stolen it from my parents), and as I fell in love with Chopin, I began to think that taking piano lessons might not be such a bad thing. So I signed up, Don gave me this piece, and now here I am, quitting my job to noodle around with the piano all day.

I realize just now as I write this that my first lesson with Don would have been ten years ago this month. Gosh.

As long as I’m on this Chopin prelude kick….

Prelude Op 28 No 20 (in C minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

This piece is easy to sink one’s teeth into, I think, very dramatic and engaging on the first listen. But subsequent digging reveals a lot of subtlety in the way the different voices move, the modulation and chromaticism, the emotional shape. It has a fascinatingly unusual structure: many piece start softly and work to a crescendo, but this one starts loud and fades to a whisper. Many pieces in binary form have an initial section that’s repeated twice (AAB) — like this or this or both the first and second larger sections of this taken individually — but this prelude repeats only the second part (ABB). What fascinating fellow Chopin was.

But enough with the analytical rambling. What a fine piece.

After next Tuesday’s recording, I’ll be switching to a once-a-week-Tuesday schedule, at least for a while. I want to focus on composition for a while, and I’m behind on some of my other projects. Fear not! Updates will keep coming; “Paul gets a job” armageddon is not yet upon us.

We live in a time of superhuman performers. The stars of the classical piano world do things that hardly seem humanly possible — certainly that are far beyond me — and people love it, demand it. It’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it’s amazing to hear the most difficult works performed with such ability; on the other hand, the emphasis on the performer, the great cult of the virtuoso, can make us forget about the music itself. Should hearing a piece of music be like watching somebody juggle 9 bowling balls on a tightrope, or like embracing an old friend?

It is often true of the composers dearest to me, Chopin first among them, that much of their finest work is their least virtuosic, and thus their most neglected. How many virtuosic pianists just gloss over a little piece like this one? (Yes, Martha Argerich, I’m talking to you.) But it is a masterpiece, not simplistic but simple, yet as wonderful as any music we pianists have the chance to explore — and painted in so few strokes, with such subtlety…. The world of music could learn from the world of math a reverence for the simple and elegant. Genius shows itself in simplicity.

So here, brave listeners, take a moment to forget about virtuosity and performers and Grammies and all that nonsense, and listen to the music itself as if it matters.

Prelude Op 28 No 6 (in B minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

An old favorite, brought from the past to the present for your listening enjoyment.

Prelude Op 28 No 9 (in E major)
Paul Cantrell, piano

I love the steady outpouring of energy, the unbrokenness of the flow as it goes through such a dramatic series of changes, the perfect balance of the different sections, the tremendous sense of scope of this mere 95 seconds, a single printed page of music. Chopin is totally my hero.

Esoteric Musicological Aside

There’s an interesting controversy about this piece: in certain places, Chopin notated the melody as dotted eighth + sixteenth on top of three triplets. For those of you who don’t know music notation, that’s corresponds to the fractions 3/4 + 1/4 = 1 beat on the top, and 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = 1 beat underneath. With me so far?

Now if you work out the math, the sixteenth note (that 1/4 of a beat) should come slightly after the last of the three triplets — but in the autograph Chopin very clearly and consistently notated it directly above that last triplet, implying that they should come at the same time. So his math and his visual language contradict each other; which do we take?

Composers did sometimes write dotted-eight + sixteenth as a shorthand for (quarter + eight) triplet — that is, the rhythm that would make them line up. That was a sort of outdated practice in Chopin’s time, but it’s still quite possible he would have done it. His obvious visual positioning, which really is quite consistent in the autograph, suggests that’s what he was doing. And at other points, he used a double-dotted rhythm to show very clearly that last note of the melody coming after the three triplets (at 1:02, for example), and in those spots, he doesn’t align the notes vertically in the autograph. I really think that “at the same time” is what he meant, and that’s how I play it. (I differ with the venerable Paderewski edition on this question.) For a fun home experiment, compare to your favorite recording!