Last week I joined my piano teacher, Sebastian Stanley, at the beautiful Rosslyn Hill chapel in Hampstead to record some piano videos. The immediate purpose was to submit the recordings for an amateur piano competition, but I decided to put some of them together into a micro-recital for the blog. You can view this as a YouTube playlist, or watch the videos I’ve uploaded below.
I hope you enjoy. With music from three EU countries (Czech Republic, Germany, France), I’m thinking particularly of EU citizens in UK …
Leos Janacek (1854-1928) – V Mlhach (In the Mists), III Andantino & IV Presto
Janacek’s 4-part piano cycle “In the Mists” was written in 1912, when Janacek was nearing 60. But it comes relatively early in his output as a composer, when – as a Moravian, based in Brno – he was still struggling to find acceptance in mainstream Czech music. The innovative harmonies may have been influenced by Debussy, whose music Janacek had recently heard in Brno, but Janacek’s style is distinctively his own, with inspiration from Moravian folk music combined with an anguished intensity.
Part III (Andantino), in G-flat major shot through with B minor, is one of the calmer pieces in the set, though pain intrudes into the middle section. In Part IV (Presto), the repeated demi-semi-quaver motif has echoes of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer, which fascinated Janacek. There is little respite from despair, with ominous cascades and eruptions of thematic material from the Andantino, and the cycle closes with bleak finality on a D-flat minor chord.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) – Romanze Op.28 No.2 in F-sharp major
Schumann composed his three Romanzen in 1839, as a Christmas present for Clara Wieck the year before they married. At her insistence, he dedicated them to her: she said she knew of nothing more tender, and described this middle one as “das schönste Liebesduett” (the most beautiful love duet).
The only instruction is “Einfach” – simple – and it’s Schumann at his most uncomplicated (save for a key of six sharps and music written over three rather than two staves). There is no sign of the struggle between Florestan and Eusebius that characterises his early piano cycles (Papillons, Carnaval, Davidsbündlertänze). Its mood of intense devotion recalls his song Widmung (“Dedication”), composed around the same time as part of the Myrthen song cycle he presented as a wedding gift to Clara. Much of the melody lies in the inner parts, and is played with thumbs, which are strangely suited to obtaining the rich, deep tone that this music calls for.
When playing this piece I can become so lost in the romance that, when interrupted by my husband, I’ve been known to call him Robert …
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) – Improvisation 8 in A minor
Poulenc’s Quinze Improvisations, spanning a period of over 25 years, are among the few solo piano compositions that Poulenc himself valued. This short piece from the middle of the set was composed in 1934, when his eclectic but distinctive style was well developed. Light-hearted and full of whimsy, it evokes a cast of characters in lively conversation: some sparkling with wit, others as elegant and urbane as Poulenc himself.
[Programme notes partly taken from material prepared for my ATCL diploma in 2015, and partly written just now.]