Piano Chamber Music

Schubert: Piano Trio in Eb Major, Op. 148, D. 897

Stuttgart Piano Trio | Naxos 1989

Entitled Notturno, this is a single movement piece for piano, violin and cello, completed in 1827.  It features a famous melody played by the violin and cello in thirds, over simple Eb major arpeggiated chords in the piano.  Although it is in a major key, it feels like a very sad piece to me, which I think is partly due to its open simplicity and slow moving phrases.  The piano also takes a turn at the melody at various points, with the string instruments playing a pizzicato accompaniment.

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49, MWV 29

Van Baerle Trio | Challenge Classics 2014

Completed in 1839, the first movement of this trio is an energetic Allegro with a very busy texture from the outset, the piano in particular given lots of fast, running passages.  The second movement is refreshingly calm, the three instruments taking their turn at a beautiful, lyrical melody.  There are moments of passion where the string instruments play with a very intense sound, crescendoing through long notes, and the piano part is given repeated, insistent chords.  The third movement is a fast, fun Scherzo, the piano again has lots of fast scale passages to play and short motifs are passed around the instruments.


Opera in the Romantic Era

Rossini: The Barber of Seville

London Symphony Orchestra | James Levine | Warner Music Group 2016

This is an ‘opera buffa’ (comic opera), which premiered in 1816 to an unfortunately disastrous reception – interesting then that it should be such a popular opera in the twenty first century!  It’s a relatively short opera, in two acts.  The Count’s first solo in Act 1 is accompanied by a Spanish guitar, setting the scene of a poor student in Seville.  Much of the music sounds Classical in style – elegant and tuneful melodies with short, detached accompaniment on the strings.  Harmonically it seems straightforward, each part firmly rooted in a particular key signature.  It has a very light hearted feel that’s well suited for a comic opera, often cheeky or playful sounding with the orchestra echoing the opera singer’s phrases.

Verdi: Aida

Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino | Zubin Mehter | Decca Music 2016

Verdi’s opera was premiered in 1871, and the quite strongly chromatic melodies in the short prelude indicate that this is a much later Romantic work than Rossini’s.  The greater number of minor keys also give away its more serious setting, telling the story of a Nubian Princess captured by the Egyptians.  The arias are lyrical and emotional with dramatic accompaniment from the orchestra, sometimes featuring orchestral solos.  The opera uses a large chorus which adds power and intensity to the drama.

Bizet: Carmen

Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris | Georges Prêtre | Warner Classics 2014

Bizet’s ‘opéra comique’ was premiered in Paris a few years after Aida, in 1875.  Like The Barber of Seville, this opera is also set in Seville and is packed full of well known, memorable melodies.  It is however definitely not a comedy – the name ‘opéra comique’ is rather misleading and simply refers to a genre of opera which involves spoken dialogue as well as arias.  It is much more dramatic and passionate than Rossini’s opera; Act I opens with tremolo strings and a suspenseful melody based on the East European major scale.  The Habanera from Act I and Toreador Song from Act II are two of the most famous arias in operatic history, both with very distinctive rhythms.

Wagner: Parsifal

Berliner Philharmoniker | Herbert von Karajan | Deutsche Grammophon 1984

Parsifal was premiered in 1882 (although Wagner started work on it much earlier), and is based on the story of a 12th century knight’s quest for the Holy Grail.  The beginning of the Prelude to Act 1 reminded me of the Prelude to Das Rheingold, as they both dwell on particular chords for a prolonged time.  Despite this rather static introduction, harmonically it is fluid and adventurous, sometimes not resting in a particular key for very long.  In keeping with this, each act was composed as a continuous flow of music rather than a series of separate arias.  In contrast to the previous operas I listened to for this exercise, none of the extracts I listened to were already familiar to me.  I think this is a consequence of the more complex harmonies and less ‘singable’ melodies.  It requires more concentration to listen to; at some points its rather meandering nature reminded me of Mahler’s 8th symphony, and at others (such as the Prelude to Act 3) I was quite captivated by the drama of the music.

Chamber Music

This exercise asks us to listen to some live orchestral or chamber music.  I went to a performance by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet which included music by Bach, Beethoven, Glazunov, Shostakovich and Schubert.

I find the experience of live chamber music performances quite different to orchestral concerts – they usually take place in a much smaller venue and have a very intimate feel. I enjoy watching the performers as they play, particularly small groups like string quartets because of the connection they make with each other through the music. I prefer to do this ‘live’ and in person (as opposed to recordings on the television or internet) as I feel closer to the performers and have the sense that they are playing for me; I think the hush and attentiveness of the audience around me also creates an atmosphere that makes me concentrate more on the music and removes any potentially distracting thoughts.

The programme was put together mostly chronologically, starting with an extract from Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge.  Shostakovich’s 7th quartet at the end of the first half of the concert also features a fugue, and I’m sure this link was intentional.  The programme notes were beautifully written by the quartet’s viola player (and founding member), Alan George.  As well as providing the historical context to each piece, they draw insightful parallels with other works and composers, and describe the important or unusual musical features of each one.  I also found it refreshing that the author wrote openly about some of the quartet’s experiences of rehearsing the music – this is an aspect of performance that is usually hidden from the audience.  The descriptions of the emotions behind the music are particularly fascinating to me.  For example the slow movement of Shostakovich’s quartet is described as ‘an encapsulation of loneliness and grief; dignified, objective, without tears.’  This emotion is evident from listening alone, but putting it into words so poetically adds another dimension for me.

Piano Transcriptions

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (1st movement)

  • Vienna Philharmonic | Carlos Kleiber | Deutsche Grammophon 2007
  • Piano transcription by Liszt: Lambis Vassailidis 2017

As a pianist myself I have occasionally had to suffer through playing some pretty terrible transcriptions of orchestral music (accompanying an amateur dramatic society’s rehearsals of Gilbert and Sullivan springs to mind!).  I think they can sometimes be very clever and effective however, and this is a good example.

Beethoven’s first movement of this famous symphony is very dramatic and I think the piano can convey the drama reasonably well – Liszt uses lots of octaves to help with this as well as some deep rumbling bass passages.  What I think the piano version misses is the symphony orchestra’s variety of colour; however ingeniously you write for the piano you can’t quite recreate the difference in sound between the strings, woodwind and brass.  The crescendos are also much more extreme and dramatic in the symphonic version, particularly because these instruments are capable of crescendoing through a sustained note, which the piano can’t do.  Liszt’s version does I think capture the spirit of Beethoven’s composition though, and he cleverly manages to incorporate most of the melodic lines and harmonies into the piano part (albeit for a rather virtuoso pianist!).



National Identity

Albéniz: Chants d’Espagne

D’ombre et de lumière | Magda Tagliaferro | BNF Collection 1960

This album includes numbers 4 and 5 of Albéniz’s suite of piano pieces published in the 1890s.  Number 5, Seguidillas, is a very upbeat piece with fast staccato rhythms that give it the feel of a Spanish dance.  It’s in 3/4 with a strong emphasis on the second beat which is quite characteristic. Number 4, Córdoba, has a very different mood – more musing and thoughtful, though it too develops into a kind of dance with an accented second beat. A predominant rhythm in both pieces is:

 The semiquavers drive towards the accented second beat, which fits well with the kind of rhythmic stamping common in Spanish flamenco dancing for example.

Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances

Kurt Nikkanen & Rohan De Silva| Collins Classics 2011

This version of Bartok’s short dance suite is arranged for violin and piano.  Several of the movements are centred on the Eastern European scales which are closely related to the harmonic minor scale (the major version has a characteristic flattened second and the minor version a sharpened fourth), which gives them a very Eastern flavour. They also have quite a passionate character which I think is in keeping with the associations from that part of the world – the violin part is highly articulated with lots of marcato and double stops.  The faster movements sound very much like gypsy dances.

Chopin: Polonaises

Arthur Rubinstein | Naxos 2010

The Polonaise is a Polish dance in 3/4 (the name is French for ‘Polish’).  Interestingly , this style of dance makes strong use of the same rhythm I identified in Chants d’Espagne.  Rubinstein (who was a Polish pianist) plays this in an exaggerated way in the recording of Chopin’s Polonaises I listened to, by holding down the first quaver for slightly longer and making the following semiquavers faster.  There’s an interesting article on the Chopin Foundation website which suggests that Chopin’s music reflects feelings of rebellion, hopes and frustrations, during a difficult time in Poland’s history.  I think the Polonaises are a very good example of this – they are dramatic and heroic sounding, full of challenging octave passages and big chords.

English Identity

It’s interesting that the Polish, Romanian and Spanish music I listened to all have some quite specific musical characteristics such as a particular time signature, rhythm or scale, but I can’t think of any  equivalent features for English music.  I think instead its identity is more defined by mood and character – reflecting the perception of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ – defiant, stately and predominantly cheerful.  Definitely not particularly emotional or dramatic like Russian music for example.

Elgar is of course the first composer that springs to mind; besides his most well known compositions, I think his ‘Cockaigne Overture’ which I’ve played with my local symphony orchestra is a good example of a piece of music reflecting a very English identity. The march rhythms and use of percussion and brass give a real sense of stately occasion. The rhythms in particular I think are quite important – they’re simple but strong throughout, which holds the music together.  Elgar’s repetition and development of the melodic themes also give the piece a very defiant personality.

Mahler: Symphony No. 8

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra | Sir Simon Rattle | EMI Records 2008

Known as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ due to its unusually large scale, Mahler’s work was premiered in Munich in 1910.  The symphony uses eight vocal soloists as well as two full SATB choirs and a children’s choir.  The orchestra is also extended to include an organ, harmonium, piano, harps, celesta and mandolin.

The combination of full choir and orchestra creates a very powerful sound, particularly when combined with the organ.  I quite like this effect, but as a prolonged texture I feel it can be a little muddled; when there is too much going on the parts tend to get in the way of each other.  The symphony is in two main parts, each divided into a large number of short sections based on passages of text from a Latin hymn and Goethe’s Faust.  This structure gives the sense of a story being unfolded, or of a journey of some kind, and the sections featuring solo vocalists are quite operatic in nature.  It doesn’t quite capture my imagination very effectively though, which surprised me as I expected to like this kind of Romantic symphonic music.  I think this is partly due to the texture, and partly because there’s just nothing about the harmonies, melodies or rhythms which particularly grabs me (sorry, Mahler fans!).  The parts I liked the best were those with a thinner texture, such as the Più mosso  in Part 2. Maybe after several listenings I would enjoy it more, but as a newcomer to the work I find it rather meandering.

Programme Music

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

London Symphony Orchestra | Sir Colin Davis | LSO Live 2002

In this exercise we are asked to listen first to this symphony without reading the programme and think about the images or emotions it evokes.

First impressions

The first movement is one of light and shade – lighthearted dance like sections alongside more serious and ominous suggestions.  The double basses hold a long sustained note while the harmony above it changes between major and minor.  It’s mostly in a major key however and I think has a joyous character.

The second movement opens with tremolo strings and a harp, diminished chords building up suspense before resolving into a waltz in a major key.  I really like the flowing melodies and sense of movement and direction that all convey the impression of an energetic but elegant dance.

The third movement starts with a gentle oboe solo.  For the first few minutes we hear mostly solos or unison melodies, conveying the idea of a solitary scene.  The texture builds up over the course of the movement, but didn’t really put me in mind of any particular images or associations.  The ending is somewhat interesting – the oboe solo returns but now with rumblings of quiet timpani, giving the impression of receding into the distance.

 Movement four is a complete change of mood – opening with threatening timpani and a minor melody in the cellos and double basses.  It’s a fairly slow, deliberate march, and has a sense of occasion about it which reminds me of the military, ending in a flourish of percussion and brass.

The final movement also starts with the cellos and basses and retains an ominous mood. High pitched strings and pitch bend in the wind instruments sound particularly sinister. This is followed by a playful section which sounds out of place after this threatening beginning.  Then an insistent melody with repeated notes (reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ but in a minor key) played out in the lower strings and brass, with the addition of a gong which sounds particularly ghoulish, like a death knell.


The first movement is about a young musician falling in love.  This makes sense to me – I think the music captured well the contrasting joys and heartaches of young passion.  The second movement describes a ball, which of course fits the elegant waltz that Berlioz wrote perfectly.  Part three is a ‘scene in the countryside’, a solitary pastoral scene which the opening definitely reflected.  The development of this movement describes the musician’s hopes and fears, and the timpani at the end is supposed to represent thunder (which in hindsight, I think it does well).  The story then becomes quite surreal and nightmarish, with a vision of murder and his own execution.

I re-listened to movement four after reading the programme.  The slow march perfectly matches the idea of a procession to an execution, resembling heavy footsteps.  The quiet rumblings in the timpani also build up the suspense, as do ascending passages in the strings, climbing both in pitch and dynamic.  A sudden silence followed by a brief melody in the clarinet (a final plea from the poor musician?) and then a dramatic extended drum roll announces his execution really effectively.