Piano Masterclass by Prof Erik Tawastsjerna


The moment I found out about the programme for today’s piano masterclass by Prof Erik Tawastsjerna (a Finnish-born pianist who has been Head of Piano Studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki since 1986, and who is a third-time Visitng Artist to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM) at the National University of Singapore), I eagerly awaited for the day to come.

The first piece of today’s masterclass is Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K331 (I. Andante grazioso), played by a Year 4 Thai student. This piece appeals greatly to me because:

  • this is the piece Maksim performed at his concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 18 Nov 2009. To my great disappointment (because it is one of my favourite Mozart sonatas), he played with a score!
  • Somehow, YSTCM students from Thailand have always been very good, so I want to hear this piece performed from memory by a consummate pianist.

Prof Tawastsjerna’s first comment is that the student plays very musically, immediately followed by a question: What is Mozart’s style? Is it the old German style (rather literal) or the authentic performance style of Romantic pianists like Horowitz? It is therefore difficult to decide what is good Mozart style. The professor himself has a soft spot in his heart for Horowitz’s style. Basically, Romantic pianists want to create a continuous legato, like a violinist thinking of a bow. Hence he believes in using lots of pedal as the flow should be a little more. At this point, Prof Tawastsjerna plays an excerpt to demonstrate.

Prof Tawastsjerna’s second question is: What is special in this sonata? The student correctly answered that it is in Variation form and is rather revolutionary as it doesn’t have the Sonata form. Thus, Mozart is indeed a great innovator. Prof Tawastsjerna continues to ask about the theme, which is fascinating. It is like a string trio for violin, viola and cello. It is precisely Mozart’s genius that has this persistent note (E) repeated in the middle voice. This has not been done very often.

The professor then works through each Variation:

Var I : Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates how to make the slurs more clear and the need for more articulation by comparing the old school way of playing and exploring the different articulation techniques; for example, certain notes need a bit more “bite” and not just be smooth and nice. The pianist should let the body participate in the orchestra sound when there are chords like having three notes in the right hand. Next, he talks about fingering and trigger postition by demonstrating on the piano. There should be pause and drama between variations. This needs to be a bit more convincing but not too long, so as to maintain the same mood.

Var 2 : Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates how trills can be done more evenly and how perhaps it could sound a little more grazioso too, to make a contrast between the simple right-hand staccato and left-hand legato. Checking of the fingering of the scalic phrase of demesemiquavers is important to ensure greater clarity and more evenness.

Var 3: Again, Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates on the need to concentrate on legato playing, as Mozart wants to make a great contrast. He believes that with good pedalling and a good ear, double octaves can be played in very good legato without needing to use finger-legato much, except using the fifth finger on the white keys and the fourth finger on black keys. Here, Prof Tawastsjerna makes the student practise what he just advocated.

Var 4: This is one section that Prof Tawastsjerna believes cannot be played without pedalling as it is almost Romantic. Of course, he again demonstrates by playing.

Var 5: Prof Tawastsjerna commented that this variation (which is marked Adagio) should not be too slow as Mozart’s Adagios are unlike other compossers’. Prof Tawastsjerna again demonstrates how there’s even melody in the Alberti bass and how staccato scalic passages could be a little more playful!

Var 6: Here, Prof Tawastsjerna plays with the student, demostrating how to play piano but keeping the semiquavers active.

The second piece is Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major Op 101 (I. Etwas lebhaft und mit innigsten Empfindung & II. Lebhaft Marschmassig). Again, Prof Tawastsjerna begins by asking the Year 3 student what makes Beethoven’s sonatas so unique. Ans: It is very condensed, so full of incredible writing (he never repeats here, unlike the early sonatas); every harmony is a colour, so the pianist must play from the heart. Epic works are Beethoven’s contact with mankind, to reach people even much more. In the first movement, there is the need to articulate all the colours in the texture. It starts very simply but it’s like a full string quartet, especially with the second violin, so it must be played with soul. (Her, Prof plays and demonstrates.) The professor then goes on to explain how music in 6/8 time (like Chopin’s Ballades) should be played with feeling. The feeling could be painful.  It is not easy to play as how Beethoven wants, but we have to find a way to achieve it. (So Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates again.)

The second movement has a melodic idea that must not be lost because of the short notes coming after the long ones (semiquavers following dotted quavers), so it is important to listen to the meloodic intervals. The passages are tricky because of the legato between thte notes and the crescendo from one note to the next. When Beethoven marks a passage sempre legato, there is even more emphasis on the melody. It would be useful to imagine a strong German man playing the big chordal passages, using the body for the big chords to build up. Beethoven never writes where the crescendos end, just like his diminuendos are not just piano.

Halfway through the Beethoven sonata, I felt a sudden onslaught of acute migraine, so I had to leave before the next piece, Brahm’s Sonata in F minor Op 5. I look forward to Prof Tawastsjerna’s fourth visit, as I enjoy both his teaching and his playing.


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