Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Last week I gave this rather indulgent programme of works in the style of various composers by various other composers. I performed in the style of a concert pianist, but owing to technical difficultues and man-flu there were a number of loose notes! Not that it seemed to matter either to me or the generous audience.

Grieg, Gade [Lyric Pieces, Op. 57, No. 2]

Satie, Sonatine Bureacratique (Clementi)

[A] The Dane, Niels Gade (1817-1890), was one of the first Scandinavian composers to win international recognition. Although extremely prolific in all forms of orchestral music he is largely found today in piano anthologies. Grieg’s homage is a graceful gem, faithful to Gade’s style, but not without a few surprises. Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was a leading piano virtuoso and educator, who moved from Italy to England when in his twenties and continued to tour Europe, pouring out hundreds of compositions and dabbling in the business world. Satie’s gently ironic Sonatine mocks the world of business and the world of classical piano in equal measure. Written into the score like musical directions is a story in French about a self-important office worker who walks smartly and happily to work, dreams about promotion, then loses his job – all to the sound of someone practising Clementi in a neighbouring building.

Barber, Nocturne, Op.33 (Field)
Schumann, Chopin [Carnaval, Op. 9, No. 9]
Ravel, Valse (Borodin)

[A flat] Although Chopin popularised the form, the “Nocturne”, gentle night music, was actually invented by the Irish pianist John Field (1782-1837), who took lessons from Clementi en route to a career in Russia. Barber’s own modernist idiom is the most distinctive thing about his homage to Field, though there are moments of eerie beauty among the hard, metallic harmonies. Schumann tries gamely to enter into the spirit of Chopin’s piano writing, but although the melodic line is very Chopin-esque he can’t quite capture the grace of his contemporary. Not that that is a problem – this is my personal favourite from Carnaval, arguably Schumann’s masterpiece, a suite in which he set out his musical manifesto, painting a vibrant world of characters both real and imaginary who would stand with him against musical Philistines (good thing he never heard anything by Barber!) Ravel’s waltz in the manner of Borodin (1833-87) is perhaps the most perfect imitation on today’s programme, catching the mood and the distinctive harmonic progressions of its model.

Howells, Ralph’s Pavanne (Vaughan Williams)
Freedman, Prelude and Fugue in G minor (Bach)

[G] Herbert Howells wrote two collections of tributes to his friends – British composers, conductors and performers of the early 20th century – in the style of English keyboard music of the Elizabethan age. Originally for clavicord they work just as well on the piano. Howells brings the Renaissance forward several centuries and conjures up the mood of VW’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The unusual harmonies Howells plays with sound quite modern but many are in fact derived from the Renaissance idiom, fond of “false relations” and jarring passing notes that ultimately resolve into happier sounds. My friend Gordon Freedman wrote his Prelude and Fugue while he was at school. Inspired by Bach, the great master of the form, it evokes the late Baroque period in its harmonic progressions and economic figuration. Like Bach, the fugue makes no concessions to the pianist, and the clinactic appearances of its chromatic theme in the middle line are quite magical. Bet you can’t guess when it was written…

Debussy, Dr Gradus ad Parnassum (Clementi / Czerny)
Addinsell, Warsaw Concerto (Rachmaninov, Scharwenka, etc.)

[C] Clementi may have written the original Gradus ad parnassum (which can be roughly translated “To paradise, step by step”), a collection of exercises that still forms the basis of piano technique today, but Debussy also had an ear for the virtuoso Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who produced still more exercises than Clementi – perhaps more than any single person could play in a lifetime (certainly before nodding off). Film music composer Richard Addinsell produced this juicy masterpiece in 1941 for the patriotic film Dangerous Moonlight, about a Polish pilot in the RAF. It owes more to Rachmaninov than to any Polish composers (except possibly Xavier Scharwenka, one of the greatest pianists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) but that did not stop it becoming a real hit. Although it may be overblown and cheesy in places, the late romantic grand piano style is secretly everybody’s favourite. kind of music You may deny that, but I know it’s true… ;-) This arrangement for solo piano (in the style of Addinsell, one might say) is by Henry Geehl.