Today’s Masterclass was conducted by a professor from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow, Russia. It was held at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the students played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21.
Liszt : Concerto No 1 in E flat
To bring home her point, Prof Dina explained, demonstrated on the piano, and hummed the theme repeatedly (I counted no less than 8 times for the first phrase and 5 or 6 times for the second phrase) to show the pensive mood of the opening bars.
She exhorted the need to “stay on top of the hill of a beautiful landscape” and to “change pedal” accordingly. It is important not to rush but “expand and enjoy” as the music needs a “beautiful, colourful, sonorous sound” like a soprano. The body should lean or push to be with the melody, like how the violin bows must be connected to produce a beautiful arch, feeling the air.
Prof Dina did not just demonstrate from her piano, but also moved to the student’s piano to show her how to draw different lengths of sound, and how to project the sonority such as likening piu dolce to a reflection or like putting colour on painting, then on top of that, varnishing. Prof Dina also repeatedly implore the student: “Imagine you have to sing this” or “Imagine this is the orchestra”. She emphasised that repeated sounds close to each other should be played differently, and went on to play in unison with the student but differently. She also commented that the playing should be consistent and convincing; it is essential to connect every sound, otherwise the music doesn’t make sense. She noted the inner parts were absent in the student’s performance and asked her to imagine the cellos were playing. Prof Dina also remarked that while fingering is a matter of individual choice, there are certain rules to ensure best results; otherwise, too much is wasted, as was the case here.
In the final section, Prof Dina singled out the grace notes. She urged the student to think of the orchestra entrance; reminding her that grace notes are upbeats and should be played using a little more ‘biting’ fingers. Here, there is crescendo everywhere and the passage should be mighty; there must be a certain way and direction, for example the sforzando must make sense. there should be no displaced emphasis but a consistency of increased intensity so that enough room is given to get faster and faster.
Due to time constraints, Prof Dina left a lot unsaid but had earlier made a lot of pencil markings in the student’s score. Even as an observer, I found this session very helpful and beneficial.
Chopin : Concerto No2 in F minor
The first comments Prof Dina made must have sounded quite harsh to the student: “the performance was not engaging, obviously mentally and emotionally struggling with stage presence; there were memory lapses and the playing was too fast. It is imperative to be clear of the reasons, otherwise there would be no chance to say certain things in the passage.”
Prof Dina emphasised that the pianist’s entrance in the first movement (high D flats in unison, after 70 bars of orchestral music) is very important so it should be even stronger to draw attention to that.
Chopin’s music require Rubato all the way and pedalling is a very serious issue here. The music cannot be neutral; it is very personal! That this concerto is written in a minor key is not accidental; it is symbolic, and more sonority is needed but Prof Dina found this student’s playing a little too shallow. (I agree.)
Any musical phrase has a musical direction, and the language of harmony is very important. Prof Dina took pains to explain the different chords, harmony and pedalling. She first asked the student: Are you in good spirits? Are you willing to work hard? She then went on to say that the student had a serious issue of grace notes and all the directions are ambiguous. She took pains to demonstrate and explain this in length.
There is no composer like Chopin; so to be indifferent in Chopin is a sacrilege. Chopin’s music is like a personal diary and he has a very personal message that he wants to convey in his concerto so the pianist must be sincere! The professor’s advice was to pedal every single sound of the melody so that when it’s distant, it’s sonorous and when it’s near, it’s clear.
The orchestra is almost non-existant in Chopin, but they are waiting for their turns. Prof Dina had to point out so many details the student missed; she had to state the obvious because it needed to be done. It is important to note even the places where it is necessayr to take a breath! Here, when Prof Dina played the orchestra reduction for the student, she (Prof Dina) stole all our attention! There was a huge, massive difference in their playing.
Prof Dina kept imploring the student to take breaths where necessary and to analyse each phrase and to note that every single sound has meaning and expression. She again commented that the pedalling was too thick, that it should be much more economical, otherwise a lot of harmony is crushed.
Prof Dina also declared that a student must not attend class without knowing the meaning of con anima (towards the last part of the first (Maestoso) movement and Larghetto (the second) movement. She commented that the Larghetto was played too fast and hence didn’t make any sense. (I totally agree here.)
Indeed, Prof Dina was “not a nasty lady” but only wanted to “persuade the student to dig deeper and have more control”. She insisted her comments were very friendly criticisms but noted that there was a barrier that didn’t allow the student to express herself as she did not even shape the phrases.
Prof Dina’s concluding remarks was food for thought for everyone present:
Why does Chopin bother to write this or that?
Why does everybody play the E minor (first) concerto and not the F minor (today’s) concerto? (Answer: It is not easy to play the No 2.)
Chopin’s music contain ever-changing expression so it is important to LISTEN. In Chopin, all passage work is more vocal and not merely technical. One has to love music to get inspired; and not only does the pianist have to love it, she must share it with others, therefore she needs to show it.