Saturday, May 8, 2010

Album for the Young 4

30 Pieces for Children
for Piano,
op. 27
by Dmitri Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904-87)

When we were kids taking piano lessons, we played a piece by Kabalevsky now and then. You remember them: kind of charming, kind of weird, 20th century pieces that didn't mind if the voices went through unexpected harmonies; pieces driven by interesting rhythms, delicately expressive, sometimes touched by a hint of sadness or by a tint of wry humor we never realized music could express. Simple pieces: if not exactly easy to play, the type of pianism that "falls under the hands" naturally, and that gives young artists a gratifying sense of playing something that sounds deceptively grown-up. Music that sounds harder than it is, and that avails itself to inexperienced players without patronizing them.

Now to find pieces by Kabalevsky, you no longer have to winnow them out of anthologies where one or two of them appear alongside pieces by other composers. Schirmer has a book full of them, made to order by the author of some of the Soviet Union's most enduring music. He emerged from the shadow of Stalin with a less sterling character, politically and artistically, than Shostakovich (and let's not forget Prokofiev, who didn't emerge at all). Nevertheless, Kabalevsky has begun to take third place among Soviet composers in the esteem of the West. His orchestral suites The Comedians and Colas Breugnon are growing in popularity. And every piano student who progresses past the first year is likely to know his name.

Music for children held a special place in Kabalevsky's creative life, as not only this book bears witness, but also his "Album of Children's Pieces" op. 3, "24 Easy Pieces" op. 39, "Easy Variations in D major and A minor" op. 40, "Easy Variations, Vol. 2" op. 51, "Four Easy Rondos" op. 60, "35 Easy Pieces" op. 89, to say nothing of his Third Piano Concerto "for Youth." Kabalevsky also dedicated concertos for violin and cello to young performers, and wrote other sets of piano pieces (Preludes and Fugues, op. 61; 24 Preludes, op. 38) that could become part of some young virtuoso's musical journey, just as Bach's Preludes and Fugues have been an integral part of mine.

Wow. I just realized that Kabalevsky was still alive when I started noticing his music as a 10-year-old piano student working my way through an anthology of 20th-century art music. In a small way, Kabalevsky lived to be one of my piano teachers. With books like the Schirmer edition of op. 27, he can do this in a bigger way with you or your kids. Bearing in mind all that Kabalevsky wrote for young pianists, you'll realize that this review will only cover a tiny part of it. Think of it as a taste of what you might look for if you like Kabalevsky's way of communicating with young musicians.

1. Waltz Time assigns a single melodic line to each hand, with rhythmic groupings of two overlapping each other in a gently swayng 3/8 time. Technically it's not at all difficult, but the harmonic twists (including a double-sharp in bar 14) will force Junior to map a new region of his or her musical mind while observing delicate dynamic shadings from p to mf. 2. Ditty lets the hands swap between tune and accompaniment. Again, while the music is easy, it will train Junior to read chromatic chord progressions and to develop fingering appropriate to the phrasing.

3. Etude, which (if you don't already know) is French for "This piece is hard for the sake of being hard, but it's good for you," is a fingering exercise with only a bit more musical interest than the average piece from the Hanon Studies. It isn't really meant to be good music, though. It's meant to give Junior a feel for scale playing - up and down a third, a fifth; thumb-crossing, etc. The R.H. part is mostly running 16ths; the L.H., meanwhile, gets its own fingering exercise in repeated 8th-note patterns. The final cadence is disproportionately interesting.

4. At Night on the River is a typical nocturne, the type of music that makes you feel wistful and lonely. Perhaps it's the way the melody spins its way over a relatively static L.H. part, or perhaps it is the delicate dynamics and the graceful quirks of harmony. If this is an exercise in sensitive playing, 5. Playing Ball is going to be all about keeping a tightly-sprung energy in control. It's got to be fast, but no faster than you can clearly articulate repeated 16th notes; and while the loud parts will demand a certain energy of attack, the softer parts will be even harder to keep soft. It's a fun musical game, but don't let the ball get away from you!

6. Sad Story has the character of a sorrowful Russian folk-song. The key of F-minor (4 flats) may itself be the main obstacle for Junior to overcome - at least, until the "oom-pah" L.H. pattern sets in toward the end. 7. Old Dance is a rare 20th-century visit to the mostly 18th-century world of the Minuet. The squiggly marks above certain notes are "upper-neighbor" grace notes, as demonstrated in a footnote. What wrinkles will this piece put on your brain? Holding a tied-over note while other voices in both hands are moving, for one. Some provocative harmonies, for another. And of course, the stately grace of a minuet along with the execution of those grace notes!

8. Cradle Song is another piece where the hands switch roles, from accompaniment to melody and vice versa. The accompaniment is a pattern of broken seventh-chords; the melody is has a lilting chuckle in it and, not coincidentally, maps the same type of chord. It's only tricky while you're finding out what the notes are; playing them isn't hard. Toward the end, the piece drops all pretense of being anything but an exercise in seventh-chords. The trick: observing the gentle dynamic markings! 9. Little Fable is an odd piece in that both hands play the same notes, only an octave apart. It's basically an exercise in keeping both hands together through a variety of simple intervals, scale runs, arpeggios, and chromatic twists and turns. The resulting music rewards the effort with a clever, dramatically-shaped miniature.

10. Clowning is a quick little piece that looks easier than it is. Almost entirely made up of a single-voice 8th-note run in 6/8 time, it turns out (on closer inspection) to be a two-page exercise in articulation in which the R.H. repeatedly plays the note the L.H. just left. 11. Rondo is an exercise in parallel 10ths (i.e. 3rds plus an octave). Except for a couple of cadences, for half of the piece the hands follow each other in exact parallel motion, sort of a dark brother to No. 9. The other half of the piece switches to three-part chords in parallel motion, creating a remarkable texture that reminds me of Prokofiev. 12. Toccatina, on the other hand, may remind you of Rachmaninov, with its spicy, singing "cello line" in the L.H. accompanied by a quick rhythmic pattern of parallel 3-part chords in the R.H. Pay attention to the dynamics, especially the long dim. on the second page, and this piece will be simply magical.

13. A Little Prank shows, again, Kabalevsky's knack for getting out of the way of the technical improvement he wants Junior to derive from a piece. The whole point of this uncomplicated number is to control short runs of 32nd-notes so that they are exactly even. It's an exercise that will add firmness to Junior's touch, particularly in his less-strong fingers. There are a few easy hand-crossings and, toward the end, an exploration of the augmented triad that symmetrically divides the notes of the octave.

14. Scherzo explores parallel thirds and the chromatic scale (proceeding by half-steps). 15. March pushes the technique of R.H.-L.H. parallelism even further, asking Junior to play broken chords in parallel thirds and sixths. It's a boundearies-pressing exercise that Junior will enjoy because of the harmonic quirks that make it sound like a theme from a science fiction movie. 16. Lyric Piece invites Junior along on perhaps his first visit to the key of C-sharp minor (4 sharps). It's an interesting trip, with a hint of "cha-cha-cha" in the accompaniment and a melody that flows downhill in a rippling texture. 17. Meadow Dance calls for the L.H. to play triads in alternating octaves while the R.H. part stretches Junior's ability to recognize notes in ledger-lines above the staff.

18. Sonatina adds dotted-eighth figures to Junior's repertoire, together with the occasional double-dotted quarter-note, parallel triads in the L.H. part, an arpeggiated chord requiring more than an octave's reach (note the pedaling indicated at that point), and other little surprises that all work together to make this a singularly charming piece. 19. War Dance exposes Junior to long-short-short patterns, a subito p dynamic, portamento signs distinguished from both staccati and accent-marks, more parallel 10ths, and a moment of imagining what it might be like to be a timpanist.

20. Fairy Tale immediately confronts Junior with the problem of how to interpret portamenti in a melodic line of repeated notes over a spinning-wheel accompaniment. The technique is almost paradoxical: separated but not short; emphasized but not accented; and whatever it is must be appropriate to a singing line in a delicate texture. Pedaling will be vital; this, too, may require the growing musician to develop a new technique. 21. The Chase is an exercise in parallel 15ths (i.e., both hands playing the same notes two octaves apart). The triplet 8ths need to be played evenly and yet without sounding forced, so that changes of dynamic (including "poco cresc.") can be convincing. The fingering included in the score could save a life!

22. A Tale has more long-short-short patterns, only with the added wrinkle that the hands move separately in overlapping phrases. Between the three sharps of F-sharp minor, the very important eighth-rests where one voice cuts off while the other keeps going, the abundance of ledger-line notes, and the expressive chromaticism, this is a tale whose telling requires care in proportion to the pleasure it gives. 23. Snow Storm begins with the tempo marking "Presto," which very definitely does not mean, "Ta-da! By magic, you can instantly play this!" It means "really fast." And that may mean doing a lot of work to make the L.H. sound like a melody and the R.H. like accompaniment in a pattern that drives through four harmonically and dramatically fraught pages.

24. Etude is another piece that makes no pretense of having an individual character. It is simply an exercise in controlling broken chords in a triplet rhythm with both hands at the same time. Though one hand is often moving stepwise while the other does broken chords, this does not necessarily make it any easier. But again, Kabalevsky does the young musician a favor by "getting out of the way" and letting the exercise be what it is, without the complication of too many other things going on. Again, fingering will be crucial, especially where the arpeggios range beyond an octave. Your reward for navigating this purely technical number is 25. Novelette, a dark, expressive piece in which the L.H. lays down a simple accompaniment (albeit one requiring a lot of forearm motion up and down the lower half of the keyboard), over which the R.H. sings in two voices, frequently parallel thirds, and sometimes with a tied-over rhythm known as hemiola. Pedaling is crucial throughout the piece (to smooth over the L.H. leaps), but especially at the end where the R.H. begins making jumps of its own.

26. Etude takes us back to school for a four-page exercise in alternating between triplet-eighths and dotted-eighth figures. The hands, meanwhile, spend much of this piece in parallel 3rds (or, when playing arpeggios, parallel neighboring chord members). The trick is to keep a "One-and-two-and" pulse going in your head so that you can correctly articulate the dotted-eighths and sixteenths, even when coming straight off a run of triplets. 27. Dance is, again, a fine reward for Junior's studious diligence, with a brisk beat and crisp parallel thirds in both hands, often in overlappiing patterns. With ledger-line notes at both ends of the Grand Staff, it's a piece that tests a wide range of the keyboard, but it also sparkles with charm and mischief.

28. Caprice is sort of like a duet for violin and cello in which both instruments play double-stops while paralleling each other at the octave. What this description means for the young pianist is that each hand, simultaneously, will be exercised in playing a two-voice texture in which each voice, by turns, moves while the other is standing still. This combination of sustained notes with restless motion, of such simplicity that one hand could play it alone with the unique color of two voices being doubled at the octave, make this an ear-striking piece. Watch the rests that form part of the moving melody line, and be careful of accidentals; for besides being in the 4-sharp key of E major, this strangely appealing tune is full of chromatic quirks.

29. Song of the Cavalry, typical of a pattern you may have observed by now, follows up a somewhat dry technical exercise with a pure musical treat. This time the L.H. carries the tune in something like the viola range, while the R.H. furnishes an accompaniment of hoofbeats. The five-flat key of B-flat minor may be Junior's biggest key-signature challenge yet, but there's a trick that makes it easy: If you ask yourself whether you're supposed to play a given black note, the answer (barring accidental natural-signs) is always yes. Anyway, it's a really fun melody for the L.H. and even when the R.H. temporarily takes over, the tune remains in the viola range! Are pianists are supposed to think about violins, violas, and cellos? Well, I don't know... maybe someday they'll be playing a concerto with them!

30. Dramatic Episode concludes the set with a slow exercise in double-dotted-eighth figures in F minor (4 flats). Making it simple is the fact that both hands either move together in some type of parallel motion, or one hand holds still while the other moves. Again there are places where the pedaling is vital to sustain a chord while the hands continue to play melodic notes, at times creating powerful sonorities. The chordal passage in the center of the piece carries Junior through some interesting harmonic developments, only without the stress of too much contrapuntal activity.

As I played through this book, I repeatedly said to myself: "Now this is my favorite piece yet!" Even on going through it a second and third time, it often seemed that whatever piece I was playing was, at that moment, my favorite piece in the book. The number of times this happens in a book where, admittedly, many of the pieces are straightforward technical exercises with a minimum of musical interest, bears witness to Kabalevsky's genius. At the very least, he had a genius for balancing pure musical pleasure with work Junior will have to do if (s)he wants to grow up to be Sviatoslav Richter or Vladimir Horowitz. And though (s)he won't be a virtuoso upon completing this book, it could be a valued early step on that journey. I would recommend this to any young pianist who is ready to graduate beyond the vanilla custard of early-intermediate lesson books to something with a spiky, spicy tang.

Here is a youngster named Ronnie playing the Toccatina from this book. It seems to be a popular piece!

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