I’ve got a lot of work to do.
There’s this Polk competition for pianists and string players at Scripps College, and I want to enter – the requirement is four different pieces from each of four eras, Baroque, Classical, 19th century and 20th century. A total of about 30 minutes of music.
So I sat down and tried to play through my repertoire, all pieces that I performed last summer in a graduate recital for some of my friends. And… well… I’ve got a lot of work to do.
J. S. Bach – Prelude and Fugue III in C# major
A light and pretty prelude followed by an equally light fugue. The Prelude is pretty simple, but the fugue is incredibly difficult. It’s a three-voice fugue in C# major, with 7 sharps and tons of accidentals and double sharps throughout the score. There’s a lot of finger-gymnastics on the keys in trying to keep all three voices heard throughout, and it’s a challenge to keep the piece at a steady pace. I’ve been playing this piece from memory for a while and haven’t really polished it up, so there’s tons of little misarticulations and small fudging going on. All of that is going to take a lot of ironing out. Painful, nitpicky ironing out. Unpleasant ironing out. Beyond that, there’s a momentum that builds up with the Fugue, and I’ve found that if I misplay even one note, then the whole train just derails into disaster.
Beethoven – Sonata in C major, Op. 53, “Waldstein,” 1st Movement
The 1st movement starts with repeated chords that sound like horses hooves beating on the ground. These repeated chords give way to repeated broken chords that sound like the horses are getting closer and closer. Eventually, Beethoven grabs us, throws us on our own horse, and we’re along for the ride also, riding through the countryside at a gallop because we’re late… for church. Interspersed with the repeated chords is a softer, very choral motif that provides a good counterpoint to the grand chords and chordal movements in the rest of the piece. The difficulty comes from rememorizing the whole movement and getting the big picture. The expression in this piece comes from broad sweeps of harmony and shorter snippets of melodic lines. Herein lies the challenge that this difficult piece poses: finding a balance between the different sections to create a cohesive overall movement.
Rachmaninoff – Prelude in g minor, Op. 23, No. 5
My favorite piece of the four. A brooding march starts the piece, growing louder and closer to a climax, then descending into a lyrical middle section. Three different voices emerge in the middle section, and when they’re in balance, they sing with a powerful emotive force. Ending with three jazz 11th and 13th chords, the section ends quietly, only to crescendo and accelerando back to an aggressive and belligerent main theme. The problems here are huge chords flying in all directions. Played softly, the repeated chords are difficult to keep even in loudness, attack and rhythm. Played loudly, the chords are difficult to keep clean and clear. And, no matter how coldly the big chords are played, they can’t be sharp or painful to the ear. And, no matter how softly the chords are played, they still need to speak clearly, like a whispered shout. Of the four pieces, I’m most comfortable with this one memory-wise, and I’m also most comfortable with my interpretation of this piece.
Debussy – Reflets Dans L’eau
A quintessential impressionistic piece, a three note motif recurs within a broader harmony. It’s called Reflections in the Water, and that’s what it really sounds like – a three note reflection floating above ripples of water moving up and down the piano. And the key is making the sounds really ripple up, down and across different scales and build as the chord progress in an ebb and flow.
Now, there’s another person entering this competition who’s playing more difficult repertoire, like the Etude Op. 25 No. 3
by Chopin, but I’m not too worried. I’d be happy with second or third place, really. I never learned piano for the money or fame. It would also be nice to polish these pieces up again. They're really rusty.