Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Album for the Young 9

Kabalevsky returns! In addition to his "30 Pieces for Children," op. 27, Dmitri Kabalevsky also published "24 Pieces for Children," op. 39, and "35 Easy Pieces," op. 89--both of which you can buy in one slim, 48-page volume from Schirmer (vol. 2037) titled Kabalevsky: Easy Pieces, ISBN 0-7935-8930-4, currently priced at US$14.99.

Opus 39 starts with four very, very, very, very short pieces--all four of them fitting on a single page in the Schirmer edition, with one system of music to each piece. Simple as they are, they have a distinctive Slavic lilt which today's up and coming young Van or Vanessa Cliburn will find intriguingly exotic. 1 Melody is an 8-bar exercise in legato phrasing with the melody in the right hand, two-part whole-note chords in the left and two-bar slurs in both. It is the simplest of all miniature forms, yet it may challenge a just-past-the-primer pianist to pay attention to phrasing and dynamics. 2 Polka is similar but with the melody in the left hand and crisp staccato chords on beats 2 and 4 in the right. 3 Rambling is an easy exercise in staccati (shortened, separated notes) and tenuti (indicating notes to be played firmly and separated, but not shortened). 4 Cradle Song introduces a rocking pattern of eighths in two-note slurs, with both hands playing the same melody in octaves.

The next few pages of op. 39 each bear two slightly longer pieces. 5 Playing requires both hands to play in alternation in the treble-clef range, sharing out a crisp staccato melody. 6 Little Joke has both hands playing running 8ths in parallel motion, the interval of a 6th apart, with slurs alternating with staccati. 7 Funny Event is a triple-time tune in which the right hand echoes the left a bar later and an octave higher. Marcati (accents), staccati, and five-note scale runs are part of the technique developed by this exercise. 8 Song has both hands playing a melody two octaves apart, articulated with one-bar slurs, a dark and brooding little piece. 9 A Little Dance assigns an easy pattern of crisp, three-note chords to the left hand, supporting a jaunty little right-hand tune. 10 March introduces dotted-eighth- & sixteenth-note figures, with an arpeggiated melody mostly in the right hand but with the left hand joining in for a couple of bars. This piece also builds experience in dealing with accidental flat-signs (as it veers from C major into E-flat and back again) and a few four-voiced chords spread between both hands. 11 Song of Autumn is another moody little melody with both hands playing the melody in parallel 15ths (i.e., two octaves apart). It requires the ability to shape phrases that are slurred together across barlines and nimble fingers to play a melody that has leaps of as much as an octave in it. 12 Scherzo combines slurred patters of an 8th and two 16ths with two staccato 8ths in a chuckling figure involving both hands, one after the other, and some perhaps unexpected harmonic twists.

The first full-page piece is 13 Waltz, in which Junior must make every effort to make the melody float smoothly and weightlessly above the gentle left-hand chords on beats 1 and 2 of each bar. The melody isn't hard as long as Junior can finger a melody calling for a variety of intervals, including fifths, sixths, sevenths, and octaves, and manage an independent rhythmic pattern in the left hand. 14 Fable is a shorter piece trying a succession of different intervals in both hands, in the three-sharp key of A major, with occasional 16th-note turns and a similar but softer central phrase in A minor. Junior will want to work on keeping the 16th notes even in speed and strength of attack. 15 Jumping is another fairly simple piece the melody in both hands at the octave, except that one hand always starts the bar an eighth-note behind the other and jumps to catch up. Phrasing from a slur to staccati seems to be part of the lesson intended from this exercise. 16 A Sad Story challenges Junior with a gentle, smooth melody in the left hand, meaning that the right-hand accompaniment must be even softer!

The book continues with more full-page pieces. 17 Folk Dance lets each hand play the melody by turns, either alone or with the other hand accompanying it in parallel 10ths. Sixteenths and tied notes add some rhythmic interest to the work Junior must do. Then comes 18 Galop, which is a dance and not a depiction of horses. The left hand--careful! watch your clef sign!--provides an alternately rocking and pounding accompaniment while the right executes sixteenth-note runs and scale runs that require a few finger-crossings. 19 Prelude is pretty much a scale exercise, mostly for the left hand, with a melody quirky enough to keep the right hand challenged and interesting enough to divert attention away from the monotonous (but important-skill-building) role of the left. Towards the end there are some full-octave scale runs, up and down, in both hands--so, more finger-crossings!

20 Clowns seems to be the most well-known piece in this set. I found several Youtube videos of it, including some precious (but not always very good) efforts by youngsters; I selected one of them for your enjoyment at the end of this post. Meanwhile, I would describe it as the first really imaginative piece of music in the book, relying on rapid alternation between major and minor versions of the same chord, an "oom-pa, doom-pa" left-hand part, and a melodic inversion when the central section shifts quirkily from A minor to F major, to create the humorous effect that makes the piece so well-loved.

21 Improvisation is a two-page piece in which Junior must learn to expect the unexpected--by which I mean, "practice, practice, practice!" It features yncopated rhythms, chromatic turns of melody, broken triads built into a wide-ranging melody in which well-drilled fingering is a must. 22 A Short Story has a left-hand melody line accompanied by a two-voice accompaniment in the right hand, staccati notes at intervals alternating between seconds and sixths. This also means learning to accept some judicious dissonance and, at times, to play notes way up in the ledger-lines above the treble staff (as well as one phrase grouped under an "8va" bracket). 23 Slow Waltz expects Junior to have made it all the way to the "intermediate" level, with left-hand waltz-figuration spread out over two octaves and a right-hand melody that includes some parallel sixths (mercifully marked staccato). And finally, 24 A Happy Outing gives Junior a crack at E major (four sharps), another left-hand part with chords alternating with a bass note, and a right-hand part with a tint of single-voice counter point and some intense fingering, including a 5-1 substitution (between an octave leap and a fifth in the same direction) and a lot of opportunities to consider whether fingers 1 and 5 should play black notes, and if so, when.

The "35 Easy Pieces," op. 89 (dating from 1972, a very good year if I may say so) begin, if anything, at an even easier level than Opus 39. 1 First Piece lets the hands try simple two- and three-note figures in alternation. 2 First Etude, however, kicks things up more than one level with a two-handed arpeggios stretching beyond the boundaries of a simple broken triad; the hands overlap and cross each other, alternating between stacks of fourths and of thirds that play off each other in unexpected ways. 3 Quiet Song reverts to the concept of the hands taking turns playing parts of a phrase, but they end up playing overlapping phraselets. In 4 At Recess the right and left hands practically chase each other. Then there's 5 First Waltz, which seems to be all accompaniment (using both hands), except for a phrase or two when the left-hand sings out. 6 The Jumping Champion exercises the left hand in jumping back and forth across the right. 7 Light and Shadow demonstrates the contrast between major and minor keys, with a melody divided between both hands, each lightly accompanied by the other. 8 Little Hedgehog, the perfect piece for Junior to practice on Saturday morning when Mom and Dad are lying in, is full of the contrary motion (the hands playing mirror images of each other's melody) and the spiky, spicy dissonance of intervals of a second.

9 Song in Octaves is exactly what its title says, but it's an unusual tune calling for attention to fingering and a dramatic build-up to the end. 10 Playful One is another exercise in hand-crossings (mind the clef signs, Junior!). 11 Crybaby is more about expression than technical mastery; though its unbroken series of musical sighs also demand rhythmically precise cut-offs and some hand-crossing. 12 The Shrew is like a cross between "The Hedgehog" and "Crybaby"--which, I suppose, is appropriate. Its strong dissonances, resolving in a variety of unexpected and strange-sounding ways, are doubled in both hands and musically "spelled" in a way that will challenge Junior to pay close attention to accidentals--and, perhaps also, to think about such music-theory concepts as "enharmonic respellings" and how they are related the direction in which a dissonance resolves itself.

13 Soothing Song is an exercise in creating a legato melodic phrase using both hands. 14 Morning Song carries forth a similar project, only with one hand, then the other, playing parallel thirds. 15 Trumpet and Echo lets the left hand echo each phrase of the right, only lower and softer; notice also the prevalence of fourths and fifths in the melody. 16 Evening Song is similar to "Soothing Song," only with longer phrases, flats instead of sharps, and a delicate ending that may be the hardest play in the game. 17 Skipping Rope is, again, about hand-crossings (mind the clef-signs!) and its final phrase has an exciting acceleration effect. 18 On the Ice is an exercise in scalewise runs of five sixteenth-notes in a fast, slippery-sounding tempo which, nevertheless, must be played for evenness and precision of speed and attack. 19 Little Goat Limping is a quintessentially Russian piece in a 5/4 meter (subdivided into groupings of 3 + 2), which mean lots of counting until Junior is confident that he has the piece down cold. 20 Trumpet and Drum assigns the drum part to the left hand (impersonated by a dissonant minor-second chord) and demands that it play with rhythmic precision against a contrasting right-hand tune similar to a military trumpet signal.

21 The Little Juggler is another "mind the clef-signs" hand-crossing piece, combined with an exercise in octaves leaping up and down, first in the right hand, then in the left. 22 March has a lot in common with Op. 39 No. 10, though most of the melody is in the left hand and the chords are in the right. 23 Brave Song fetches Junior into the wonderful world of F-sharp Minor--which, you may be surprised to learn, has only three sharps, though you have to look out for such accidentals as E-sharp. The real challenge of this piece is to play the simultaneous rhythms in each hand with equal accuracy and expressiveness. 24 The Little Harpist is about four-note arpeggios in the right hand (7th-chords, basically). The left hand chimes in with only about one note per bar, but a couple of them are a little tricky to play without sacrificing the illusion of a single melody being played by one hand. 25 Chastushka (something like the Russian equivalent of a Limerick) is a one-page piece with, again, the left hand leaping back and forth over the right, often to play crunchy dissonances. It has a spirited, folksy feel.

26 A Merry Game has the two hands playing together in parallel sixths, including broken-triad staccati and sixteenth-note scale runs over the range of a fifth. 27 Stubborn Little Brother, something I know a lot about, has a featureless right-hand melody that kinda rides along, minding its own business, when suddenly (and repeatedly) it is brought up short by a loudly dissonant note, repeated more and more frequently and struck with two fingers of the left hand at the same time. The battle between the two escalates until at last "little brother" (the left hand) seems to ride off on the bicycle. You'll love the final chord of this one! 28 Buratino's Dance (Buratino is the Russian Pinocchio) combines an exercise in hand-crossing with a succession of dotted-eighth-note figures, mostly with the sixteenth-note leading up chromatically to the dotted-eighth. 29 Melody provides more experience with accidentals and finger-crossings as its tune ranges across wide arpeggios and a variety of harmonies, including some pungent disonance. 30 Fighting Song is a brusque little piece with a dotted march rhythm, a very lightly accompanied melody with some interesting chromatic kinks in it.

31 Rabbit Teasing a Bear-Cub invites Junior to play two characters at the same time, the one "heavily" (pesante) with the left hand, the other "lightly" (leggiero) with the right. Its challenges include changes of meter, high ledger-line notes, sixteenth-note runs including full-octave scales, and the harmonically unexpected. 32 Little Hippo Dance is an exercise in using the sustain pedal, clearing it twice a measure where the harmony requires it or not--which is to say, creating somewhat of a blur. Plus, both hands play a two-voice texture, doubled at the 15th and later at the 22nd (i.e. 3 octaves a part), thanks to an "8ba" bracket below the left-hand part. 33 Almost a Waltz is an off-bubble dance in 7/4 time, at first grouped into 4 + 3 and later 3 + 4, with a couple of 3/4 passages to make it interesting. As if the harmony isn't interesting enough! Plus, some of the wide-flung melodic phrases call for really attentive fingering. 34 Melancholy Rain is a slow piece, requiring care in selecting its tempo before you begin to play it rather than when you get to bar 7 and realize that it isn't slow enough. Interesting rhythms, simultaneous staccati and tenuti, a melody in which repeated notes and long-held tied notes play a major role, and chromatic harmony are among the points of interest. And finally, 35 By the Water closes the collection with a very slow study in syncopation, arpeggios in contrary motion, use of the sustain pedal, and non-traditional harmony leave Junior with the consciousness of having visited an unusual domain within the world of music.

Compared to other "Albums for the Young," this book is close to the top of the pile in terms of approaching Junior at a very elementary level of pianism and guiding him systematically towards something much more advanced. It gets average or lower marks, however, in the category of pure musical invention. As an adult with 30 years of piano-playing experience behind me, I would personally rather play and listen to Prokofiev's "Music for Children"--unless, that is, I had to listen to a child trying to learn to play the piano by struggling through that book. In that situation, Kabalevsky would serve better!

IMAGES: Above--Mostly Kabalevsky, in one instance conducting a Russian orchestra featuring a 14-year-old American piano prodigy! BELOW: This kid does it right! Here is "Clowns," op. 39 no. 20, played by one Max Zhuang, who not only hits the right notes but does so with rhythmic precision, attention to the dynamic markings, and the fearless conviction of a future virtuoso.

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