One of my favorite pieces; Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2

Specifically, I love the first movement.  Unfortunately, my hands are small (can barely reach an octave) and my teacher in high school wouldn’t let me play things that I couldn’t reach, so this was out of the question for me.  I know, I know.   Alicia de la Rocha had small hands and still managed to be a concert pianist. But she mostly played Bach, not Rachmaninoff [ed.  I mean Prokofiev I think but Rachmaninoff also has proved a challenge for my small hands].  Very different things.

Anyway, enough about me and my hands.  About the Concerto:

Prokofiev completed his second piano concerto in 1913, dedicating it to his Conservatory friend Max Shmitgov, who had committed suicide in April, shooting himself in a forest in Finland, after writing a farewell letter to his friend Prokofiev. Learning the solo part was hard work and he spent part of summer in preparation, while accompanying his mother on a tour of Western Europe that took them to Paris, to London and then to a spa in the Auvergne, before a brief holiday near the Black Sea. On 23rd August he played the concerto for the first time in a concert at Pavlovsk, provoking a very divided response of outrage and horror from some and ecstatic approval from the more progressive.

The orchestral score of the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minorOpus 16, was destroyed in a fire, during Prokofiev’s absence from Russia after 1918, and was rewritten in 1923. In Paris in the summer of 1914 Dyagilev showed interest in what seemed the work of another of the fauves and suggested using the music for a ballet, eventually commissioning a work on a primitive pagan libretto, Ala and Lolly, which, when it was rejected, became the Scythian Suite, music that Glazunov found even more distressing. In compensation for rejection of Ala and Lolly, Dyagilev arranged a concert appearance for Prokofiev in Rome in 1915, when he played the concerto to the expected mixed response. Dyagilev now offered a more congenial commission for The Buffoon (Chout), a ballet eventually staged in Paris in 1921.

The concerto is in four movements and opens with a lyrical Andantino and textures, at least, that suggest the chromaticism and piano-writing of Rachmaninov. The second movement is a Scherzo, in the key of D minor, music that offers a technical challenge to the soloist in its busy octaves. The original key of G minor is restored in the third movement> Intermezzo, a march in ironic mood rather than the more lyrical movement suggested by the title. The virtuoso finale recalls in its first subject the first movement, leading to a second subject of obviously Russian character. There is an extended cadenza before the orchestra returns with the principal theme.

The following are a few different renditions of the Concerto to mull over.  I had the Yefim Bronfman recording in high school, so probably I prefer it simply because it is very familiar and comfortable.  As always, I love Evgeny Kissin‘s version because, well, he’s amazing.  Yundi Li‘s performance is also lovely.

It has been said of the work:

It remains one of the most technically formidable piano concertos in the standard repertoire. Prokofiev biographer, David Nice, noted in 2011: “A decade ago I’d have bet you there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly.Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev as virtuoso had got into a terrible mess trying to perform it withAnsermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, when it had gone out of his fingers.”[7]

Furthermore, the cadenza in the first movement, which comprises close to half of the first movement, is among the most difficult in piano repertoire.

Happy listening!

Update: Watch Beatrice Rana perform the concerto during the Finals of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition:


Remember this?

This used to crack me up.  I just remembered it for some reason.  It still makes me giggle.

Here’s a version I haven’t seen.   I like the flair the orchestra adds.


Music vocabulary; Portamento


por·ta·men·to  (pôrt-mnt, pr-)

n. pl. por·ta·men·ti (-t) or por·ta·men·tos

A smooth uninterrupted glide in passing from one tone to another, especially with the voice or a bowed stringed instrument.

[Italian, from portare, to carry, from Latin portre; see per-2 in Indo-European roots.]

In music, portamento is a gradual slide from one note to another. It is very similar to a glissando, but a glissando is deliberately written in the music by the composer and may be a long slide between two or three octaves or more. A portamento is a much shorter slide, usually between two notes which are quite close. Opera singers often used to slide from one note of a tune to another instead of singing each note separately and clearly. The habit of putting in portamento between notes spread to other instruments as well. When listening to recordings of violin playing from the early 20th century we can hear that the players used a lot of portamento.

Over the last half century portamento has gone out of fashion and singers and instrumentalists are taught not to slide from one note to another. However, there are some places, especially in opera, where it can be effective so long as it is not done all the time. It is a matter of taste.

The following are musical excerpts from 1) La Sonnambula 2) Duke Bluebeard’s Castle:

In example one, the portamento is implied by the slur between the E flat and A flat in the first full measure.

Here’s an audio clip of no.1.  Note that the portamento is subtle in this example.

In example no. 2, the portamento is indicated by the squiggly line leading to the grace note at the end of the first measure.

Here’s an audio clip of the second example.  It is the female character’s first line that occurs around 1:40 or so.

Here’s two different performances of the Liszt transcriptions of the song.  Notice the lack of portamento (it’s not really something that can be done on piano).

People often confuse portamento with portato, which means  slightly detached – it’s somewhere between legato and staccato.  Or rather, the terms used to be known as distinct, but now I believe, portamento is sometimes used to mean portato.  Once Wikipedia returns, I’ll sort this out once and for all.

In the meantime, some more examples of the strictest definition of portamento.

Here’s a piece I sang in college.  Definitely portamento involved here:


One of the creepiest opera scenes ever

In case you don’t know the libretto, that’s the decapitated head of John the Baptist that she’s singing to.


Music puns!

vocal performances

Aafje Heynis

A new discovery of mine.  Somehow I’d yet to have the pleasure of hearing this lovely voice until a friend of mine introduced me via this YouTube video:

I’m not entirely sure whether my enchantment came from the vocalist or from the piece or from the circumstances, but I’m enchanted, that’s fore sure.

Here’s some biographical details on Heynis.

Aafje Heynis (born 2 May 1924, Krommenie) is a Dutch contralto. In 1961, she was awarded the Harriet Cohen International Music Award. A tea rose, hybridised by Buisman 1964, was named after her.
[edit] Biography

As young as aged four she sang in the child choir and together with her father at the harmonium. On the advice of Jan Mienes, the conductor of the choral society in her native town of Krommenie she auditioned for teacher Jo Immink in Amsterdam with an arrangement of the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from Wagner’s “Tannhauser”. After that from 1946 to 1949, her singing teacher was Aaltje Noorderwier-Reddingius and was given good advice by Laurens Bogtman, the great oratorio singer.

She quickly established her reputation, to begin with in the field of oratorio. With her performance in Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the direction of Eduard van Beinum, she attracted wide attention. She performed many concerts in churches, Lieder recitals, and numerous performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. For the Philips label she made a whole series of recordings of works by Brahms, Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn.

However Aafje Heynis showed a particular preference for Gustav Mahler, one consequence of which was a legendary recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Here she is singing Strauss’ “Morgen.”

For comparison, here’s a recording of Morgen with which I (and most others) are very familiar.  The Great Elisabeth Schwarzkopf:

And for some more Heynis examples:

Because I’m pretty sick (flu or something), I’m going to forego analyzing these performances for now.  Instead, I’m just going to listen.  Feel free to share what you think, however.

miscellaneous performances

Child “prodigies”

Just read an interesting article from this guy:

Dr. Winters received his Doctor of Music from Northwestern University, and also holds the B.M. and M.M. in piano performance from Indiana University. His background includes teaching college-level piano, arts administration at two universities, and extensive performing experience as solo pianist and accompanist. As an operatic baritone, Dr. Winters has sung over a dozen principal roles; he made his Virginia Opera debut in the 2004 production of The Merry Widow. His compositions include two children’s operas commissioned by Virginia Opera’s Education department: History Alive! and Tales From the Brothers Grimm. His first book, THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. He joined Virginia Opera’s Education and Audience Development Department in 2004 as Community Outreach Musical Director.

(from here)

It basically discusses how bad this child opera star phenomenon is in terms of the health and future career of the child. Here are some of the “stars” he has in mind:

1. Jackie Evancho

2. Same song, different singer – the 90s sensation, Charlotte Church:

Here’s what Glen has to say about these children:

For one thing, the great majority of child performers will eventually crash and burn attempting to make the transition from intuitive tot to analytical adult. . .

Furthermore, that “unusual musical maturity” you think you detect in the oh-so-polished phrasing of a Chopin Nocturne or Paganini Etude is not organic maturity at all. It’s apery; it’s mimicry; it’s the result of carefully imitating some adult’s interpretation, be it from the teacher or some recording. Musical compositions which express profound insights about love, loss and life are beyond the ken of a nine year old and that’s just how it is. Having a good ear is not the same thing as musical insight. . .

Another problem relating to emerging from the prodigy stage: child stars become accustomed to being the most successful performer wherever they are. . .They are able to play difficult compositions eighty percent perfectly with little effort. That in itself poses a problem: when such young musicians go on to major in their instrument at the college or conservatory level, they are too often content to continue achieving 80% perfection with 40% effort. It’s not unusual that they find, to their bewilderment, that they are surpasssed by less gifted students who achieve 95% perfection with 110% effort. . .

Let’s get something straight: opera is to singing as neuro-surgery is to medicine. No pre-adolescent children should ever do it, and few teen-agers should do much of it. Yes, yes, I know all about Roberta Peters having made her Metropolitan Opera debut at age sixteen. Big whoop, don’t care. Until their hormones have finished percolating, children should sing (duh) music written for children . . .

The vocal folds which produce musical tones are a highly delicate, extremely fragile, easily damaged organ. Adult opera singers are at risk of incurring injury from over-use; what chance do you think Shirley Temple Junior has? Think about it. That Tweenie girl singing opera is writing checks her body can’t cash, even though, yes, it might sound perfectly lovely to YOUR amateur’s ears. You don’t get to hear her ten years later when her instrument has degraded to the point that a career in the opera field is no longer an option. . .

Here’s my recommendation: if your ten year old daughter has a nice voice, do her a favor and let her take piano or guitar lessons. Then she’ll have the solid musical foundation and musicianship skills that will pay dividends when she reaches the age Mother Nature intended for serious vocal study to begin. If that highly educated private teacher gives her simple songs to sing with a modest range, asking her to perform only in studio recitals, you may just scrape by without doing permanent damage.

I mean, what’s your hurry, anyway? Children sing in church, home and school. Leave the stage and the recording studio to the big bad grownups. Thanks.
My mother didn’t let me take voice lessons, no matter how much I pleaded and prodded, until I was 15, and even then, she had misgivings. We would watch the Charlotte Church appearances and she would harumph and talk about how unhealthy and inartful the whole thing was. Of course, I, who was around Charlotte’s age, was simply jealous – I wanted to sing! But I’m definitely grateful not to have been pushed like that. I didn’t turn out to want to be an opera singer, or professional musician at all, but if I had decided to pursue that route, then I’m glad I didn’t muck these up early like these children.
Makes me wonder . . . how’s Charlotte doing now? From Wikipedia:
Church released her first album in five years, titled Back To Scratch, on 17 October 2010. . .

In 2000, she released Dream a Dream, an album of Christmas carols. It included Church’s first foray into a more pop-influenced style in the title track Dream a Dream, borrowing the melody from Fauré’sPavane and featuring young American country singer Billy Gilman. Church also sang with Gilman in “Sleigh Ride” on his CD Classic Christmas.

Cover of "Dream a Dream"
Cover of Dream a Dream

In 2001, Church added more pop, swing, and Broadway with her album Enchantment. That year, Church made her first film appearance in the 2001 Ron Howard film A Beautiful Mind. Celine Dion was beginning a concert engagement in Las Vegas and was not available to perform the film’s end title song, “All Love Can Be”, so composer James Horner enlisted Church and the song was rewritten for her vocal range. Church also handled other vocal passages throughout the score.

In 2002, at 16, she released a “best of” album called Prelude, and took p

art in the Royal Christmas tour alongside Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, concluding her classical music career.

Even worse than the fizzling “classical career” that failed to grow with her, is that, accostumed to the spotlight or performing or what have you, she decided to pursue pop music (gag!). Here’s an embarrassing example:

To make matters worse, the album more or less tanked:

Four singles were moderately successful in the UK with “Crazy Chick” reaching no. 2, “Call My Name” number 10, “Even God Can’t Change the Past” number 17, and “Moodswings (to Come at Me like That)” number 14. Although these were released in Australia as well, they failed to reach the same level of success there, and in March 2006 it was announced that there would be no US releases of Church’s pop work until she had achieved a number 1 hit in the UK.[citation needed] Tissues and Issues accounted for no more than 2% of her total sales.

Makes me really wonder about those Brits that “Crazy Chick” made it to no. 2, but that’s besides the point.

Anyway, Sony dumped her in 2006, or perhaps, as her PR team put it, they mutually decided to part ways. Will probably never know, for sure.

It looks like she has another recording contract now, but it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere:

Church’s new album, Back to Scratch, was released in the UK on October 25, 2010. The 14-track set has been produced by Martin Terefe.

The rest of the wiki discussion deals with her personal life and some contract disputes with her promo people – not really good news for the album.

The sad thing is that maybe, if she hadn’t been pushed so hard, she might have been a good classical musician. Maybe not as rich and famous as she is now, but perhaps more content and respected and less emotionally damaged by having her life followed in tabloids (granted, I’m assuming that that damaged her; I don’t know).

Anyway, my point is, I agree with Dr. Opera – let these children be children, teach them musicianship through piano, and slow them down on the YouTube fame-seeking.

Related articles

ear training music education

major and minor ear training

I always do about 10 minutes of ear training with my students at some point during our hour long lesson.  Usually, we do it first.

For beginners, one of the first things that we cover is the difference between major triads and minor triads.  Students typically are very quick to learn to distinguish the two, but when the minor triad is played in the higher registers or the major triad is played in the lower registers, my students frequently get confused.

Today, I recommended to one student to spend some time listening to Grieg’s Piano Concerto  to get a sense of what minor chords in the upper registers sound like.  The opening of Grieg’s concerto is an obvious example although I worry that perhaps the aggressive sound will make the “ominous”quality of the minor all too obvious.  Well, we see if it clarifies anything anyway.

Here it is, in case you’d like to listen: