Friday, November 15, 2013

Album for the Mature 5

Now I come to an album of piano pieces that I acquired fairly recently—within the past year or two. Nevertheless, I have been playing a lot out of it, and I really enjoy it. My warmest recognition goes to...

Lyric Pieces
by Edvard Grieg
Recommended Ages: 14+

All right, so some of these pieces are obviously suitable for an "album for the young." Many of them turn up in anthologies of classical pieces, graded by difficulty, for intermediate-level learners on the piano. This is how I first became acquainted with several of Grieg's Lyric Pieces, and aware of the collection as a whole. It took an adult impulse to find my own not-too-difficult piano masterpieces to explore (without a teacher telling me what to pick), and a bit of online research, to flush out a Schirmer Edition of the Complete Lyric Pieces (vol. 1989 in Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics).

Who was Edvard Hagerup Grieg? He was a pianist and composer who lived from 1843 to 1907, and who is the first representative of Norway appearing on the list of "worldwide classical composers in order of greatness." A lot of his music was influenced by nationalistic feelings; even if it isn't actually based on Norwegian folk melody, its rhythms, phrasings, harmonic patterns, and textures are often inspired by characteristic inflections in his native culture. He wrote a vivacious, popular Piano Concerto, the incidental music to an Ibsen play from which the well-known Peer Gynt Suites were extracted, some songs, and other chamber, choral, and theater music. Most of his work, however, was for piano, including the original version of the Holberg Suite, four Symphonic Dances, the Peasant Dances (op. 72), and many other pieces, some written for children. Besides the present album, many of these pieces are collected in another book that I have, and that may be featured later in this thread. Suffice it to say, Grieg specialized in piano music, much of which is both accessible and attractive to a amateur player like me.

What are the Lyric Pieces? The largest part of Grieg's compositional output, the Lyric Pieces are relatively brief, single-movement works whose varying titles, moods, and textures suggest a variety of characters—which is why "character pieces" would be an equally apt name for them. They are lyric in the sense that they express feelings, such as melancholy and nostalgia. Many of them are picturesque, conjuring imagery of landscapes and rustic communities, such as a peaceful forest or a village wedding. Some of them evoke the magic of fairy tales, such as dancing elves and marching trolls, or of myths and legends, such as sylphs and phantoms; some are expressly nationalistic, written at a time when Norway was emerging as a distinct identity; some (in their titles, at least) evoke broader traditions such as Waltz, Berceuse, Canon, and even a French Serenade. At least one piece is a memorial to a friend who had died recently. Their variety as a set, more than their strength as individual pieces, makes this album a great pleasure to play in, either starting at the front and working one's way through to the end, or poking around at random for a few quarters of an hour.

There are sixty-six (66) Lyric Pieces, divided between ten opus numbers. These groups of six to eight pieces each represent sets that were originally published together, starting with op. 12 in 1867 and ending with op. 71 in 1901. The Schirmer Edition fits these pieces into 209 pages of music, which is a bit thick for a piano album, but not awkwardly so. Trees could have been saved by using repeat signs, or Da capo and Dal segno notations, rather than fully writing out note-for-note repetitions, often of pages of music.

Other than that, my only protest about this album is that I don't really want to write a lengthy description of all 66 pieces in it, especially since I am still growing familiar with the material. So apart from a listing of the pieces, with a brief remark on each, let me add once again that the time I have spent with this book has been all pleasure. With that recommendation in mind, make what you will of:

Op. 12—8 Pieces
No. 1 Arietta
A sweet, delicate, single-page melody over a rolling, middle-part pattern.
No. 2 Waltz
Typical Grieg mannerisms set this A minor waltz apart from the Chopin and Brahms specimens we have lately discussed. Note the dramatic gestures, the folksy inflection of the grace-notes, the mildly chromatic harmony: hallmarks of Grieg.
No. 3 Watchman's Song (from Macbeth)
Grieg uses something akin to Brahms's "ballade" register to give this piece a sense of nobility, antiquity, and dramatic gravity.
No. 4 Elves' Dance
I first played this piece in my early teens; it was one of the pieces that got me interested in looking for this album. Its tinkly staccato chords sparkle with magic, while its louder, lower passages in octaves thrum with menace.
No. 5 Popular Melody
This C-sharp minor piece reminds me somewhat of a Chopin Mazurka.
No. 6 Norwegian Melody
This fast and forceful piece begins and ends with a skirling, bagpipe-like tune, while something more accordion-like runs through its middle section.
No. 7 Album Leaf
The melody in this E minor piece alterantes between the top voice and a middle part, while the accompaniment rocks under or around it in a sort of "oom-pah, oom-pah" pattern.
No. 8 National Song
This one-page piece should be familiar to many young piano students with classical leanings. It combines warm romantic harmony with a stately, majestic bearing.

Op. 38—8 Pieces
No. 1 Berceuse
Pieces with this title often feature a melody that seems to float dreamily over a harmonically static background. This piece does break away from its G major pedal point at times, but it wants a wide-awake pianist to subdivide the beat into 2:3 cross-rhythms with one hand.
No. 2 Popular Melody
Obviously, when Grieg says "popular melody," he doesn't mean a pop-song so much as a folk tune. This one again evokes a bagpipe-like instrument, with a melody that curls above a somewhat droning accompaniment.
No. 3 Melody
This warm, tender, romantic melody needs to flow freely—which is the main challenge in a piece that also features 4:3 cross-rhythms, rich chromaticism, and some surprisingly dissonant chords.
No. 4 Halling
This title designates a traditional Norwegian dance typically described as rapid and acrobatic. This one flits up and down between high and low registers of the piano, requiring hand-crossing agility.
No. 5 Spring Dance
The melody dances at first in a high register, then low down in a middle voice over an increasingly drone-like accompaniment. Be prepared to execute wide-spread chords and characteristic grace-notes.
No. 6 Elegy
This piece features some of the most daring harmony so far in the album. Be awake not only to chromatic motion and dissonance, but also to cross-rhythms that sometimes divide one hand against itself.
No. 7 Waltz
Grieg's E minor Waltz is light-textured but, thanks to its many tempo changes, undanceable. Dancing it isn't the point; the mood of cultured melancholy is.
No. 8 Canon
This is an amazing romantic notion of a musical styling that goes back to Bach's time and beyond. The melody in the left-hand part copies that of the right-hand part, while lagging behind by a given time-interval: a full 3/4 bar at first and during the contrasting middle section; only one beat during the portion of the A section that is immediately repeated. What adds a layer of Romantic color is the accompaniment, including harmony notes in both hands which ensure that even the immediate echo of the melody heard only a beat or three ago, seems to mean something different now.

Op. 43—6 Pieces
No. 1 Butterfly
This light, graceful piece specializes in wide left-hand arpeggios (sometimes crossing into the right hand) supporting a melody that bobs and sinks like a floating butterfly. The final note is the lowest key on the standard piano keyboard, 3 octaves below the A below middle C.
No. 2 Solitary Traveller
This gentle, melancholy number sounds like the quintessential Grieg, blending some features of Scandinavian folk melody (such as hemiolas1) with progressive art-music touches (such as a touch of bitonality2).
No. 3 In My Native Country
This slow, almost hearbreakingly tender piece begins in D-sharp minor in a high register, and ends with an F-sharp major cadence in a middle-to-low register. So, work on playing in six sharps, with plenty of accidentals (including double-sharps) and more of Grieg's characteristic grace-notes.
No. 4 Little Bird
This quick number will require you to master a series of unusual, rhythmic trills, reminiscent of the twittering of a songbird.
No. 5 Erotik
One of the first pieces in this album that I fell in love with, this slow, richly textured piece aches with romantic passion. Watch for a number of rolled chords in which the left hand crosses from bottom to top.
No. 6 To the Spring
At first this passionate melody, accompanied by a throb of repeated chords, is mainly challenging because of its F-sharp major key signature, a few chromatic tweaks, and an occasional 2:3 cross-rhythm. Things get a bit nuts when, for the last two-and-a-half pages, you find yourself having to play three staves of music with only two hands. Luckily, all of the notes are reachable; it's just a matter of spotting where they fit in time.

Op. 47—7 Pieces
No. 1 Valse Impromptu
This E minor waltz is on the kinky side, with a rocking rhythmic pattern in the left hand and a relentlessly dissonant, almost atonal melody in the right. Again, promimently featured are rolled chords where the left hand crosses from bottom to top.
No. 2 Album Leaf
Grieg finds himself in a Tchaikovskian mood, though his melodies and harmonies are always his own. The passages where the right hand delicately accompanies a left-hand melody look more difficult than they are.
No. 3 Melody
The melody frequently repeats the same two-bar rhythmic pattern, while both hands play a rhythmically throbbing accompaniment. The effect of this combination of simple parts is surprisingly lyrical, full of tender feeling.
No. 4 Halling
This rustic dance consists mainly of a skirling melody over a bass throb of droning fifths (D and A, with a G-sharp grace-note).
No. 5 Melancholy
The main G minor melody of this piece seems to rise in sobs from somewhere deep and dark. A second idea, like a cruelly brief glow of consolation in A-flat major, is one of the moments from this album that haunts the back of my mind.
No. 6 Spring Dance
Again, Grieg appears in his rustic mode, with bass drones, a merry melody fluttering up and down in parallel sixths, and frequent hand-crossings.
No. 7 Elegy
Here is another piece that I first met in an anthology of not-too-hard piano classics, either in my boyhood or during a spell when I worked in a piano shop and had spare time to pound the sheet music. Its chromatically sinking left-hand melody, accompanied with off-the-beat chords in the right hand, has an eerie, macabre effect that Kevin Junior will love.

Op. 54—6 Pieces
No. 1 Shepherd's Boy
A lonely melody is punctuated by plunging pairs of chords. In the more full-textured middle section, mastery of 4:3 hemiolas will be an important skill to work on.
No. 2 Norwegian March
As marches go, this one has more than its share of brightness and sweetness. It makes a great deal out of a minimum of melodic material, particularly in a long sequence descending from a delicate high register to a rich middle-register climax.
No. 3 March of the Trolls
Here's another staple of the teen recital circuit. Rapid note accuracy at a brisk tempo, delicacy of touch in a chromatically evolving series of staccato chords, and a counter-intuitive accent on the first note of a series of quick five-note scales, will be the challenges for Kevin Jr. to tackle.
No. 4 Notturno
The middle-voice accompaniment throbs on the "and-a" of each beat, while the right hand often crosses the left to play both the bass line and the melody. A secondary idea adds a bird-song-like trill to the top voice; still later there is a faster transitional section whose dynamics include a four-bar crescendo from ppp to ff.
No. 5 Scherzo
Besides playing Prestissimo leggiero (very fast and lightly), the challenges in this piece include frequent 2:3 cross-rhythms, rhythmic diminution of part of the melodic pattern, and making the "more tranquil" middle section fit into the whole.
No. 6 Bell Ringing
I think this set has a weak ending in this game, or experiment, in imitating church bells. Both hands play parallel fifths, the left tolling back and forth, the right pealing up and down, exploring different facets of bitonality. Be sensitive to the dynamics, and to the contrast between phrases with and without grace-notes.

Op. 57—6 Pieces
No. 1 Vanished Days
Both the melody and the left-hand part have wide leaps. Playing these accurately while remaining sensitive to the delicate dynamics is one of the challenges of this piece, along with frequent cross-rhythms and alternating subdivisions of the beat.
No. 2 Gade
This sweetly sentimental number seems to have been written in memory of Danish composer Niels Gade, whose death in 1890 preceded the publication of this opus number by three years. There is some drama at the heart of the piece, some nice echo effects, and a coda that tries out much of the range of the keyboard.
No. 3 Illusion
Marked Allegretto Serioso (moderately fast and serious), this study in sequences3 has a brooding quality. The descending sequences convey a sense of stifling discouragement; the ascending bits, of frustrated effort.
No. 4 Secret
This moderately slow, richly expressive piece, very definitely for Kevin Senior, is marked by chords so wide that they require finger-crossings (unless you have a third hand). Be prepared also for a central passage of unaccompanied, instrumental recitative—vocal writing for the piano!
No. 5 She Dances
The marking "Tempo di Valse" makes this virtually a Waltz in C major, with a fluttery rhythmic figure (at first in the right hand) that needs to be played ever so lightly. The effect is diaphonously delicate, if done well. Put enough work into the piece to achieve that, and the rest will be easy.
No. 6 Home Sickness
The A section of this piece features a melody in E minor that seems to turn over the same thought again and again, varying only the harmonic color beneath it. The addition of a left-hand countermelody only adds to the obsessive effect. But the most profound homesickness is expressed by the E major middle section, a passage of idyllic sweetness played in a very high register (ledger-line alert!), as though filtering one's memories of home through the eyes of childhood.

Op. 62—6 Pieces
No. 1 Sylph
Wide intervals, dotted rhythms (made extra-crisp by a sixteenth-rest break between the notes), chromatically sliding sequences, and gentle dissonances challenge Kevin Jr. or Sr. to keep this pieces sounding as delicate as can be.
No. 2 Gratitude
A bright, gentle melody leads to a passage in which fragments of the tune alternate with low octaves, building to a warm rich climax.
No. 3 French Serenade
French though the lilt of this graceful, playful, nimble piece may be, in concept, it still bears the unmistakeable stamp of Grieg's Norwegianism.
No. 4 Brooklet
The trick with this piece is keeping fast, light runs of sixteenth-notes rhythmically together in both hands at once. For much of the piece, the brook burbles in little spurts; but when it really gets going, be awake to subtle, chromatic chord-changes and unexpected harmonies.
No. 5 Phantom
This expressive, light-textured piece sneaks in moments of daring harmony and interesting cross-rhythms. When the right-hand melody breaks into octaves, keep it light and clear.
No. 6 Homeward
Here's a piece of rollicking fun, full of interesting harmonic quirks and unexpected twists. Don't worry about the crispness of the staccati, since the pedaling will blur them together anyway; just enjoy the lightness and energy of it!

Op. 65—6 Pieces
No. 1 From Early Years
The main theme progresses from gentle melancholy to theatrical brilliance. A new theme in the middle section is very spry and folk-dancelike. Watch for passages in parallel (and almost-parallel) octaves, and a particularly challenging passage of flowing sixteenth-notes in the right hand.
No. 2 Peasant's Song
Grieg gives a simple folk melody (or facsimile thereof) a movingly expressive treatment, full of modest nobility. It sounds like a vocal piece transcribed for piano solo. Look for wide-spaced cords, drawing rich sonorities from the instrument.
No. 3 Melancholy
A cello melody in the right hand, with even deeper and darker accompaniment in the left, sets the mood early; be alert to a wide variety of rhythmic subdivisions within one phrase. In spite of tricky cross-rhythms and changes of register and texture abound, the bleak mood is relentless.
No. 4 Salon
This is another of the first pieces I played out of this album. For all its veneer of culture and style, there is something strangely sad, and sadly strange, about it.
No. 5 Ballad
Romantic tragedy oozes from this gentle, low-key piece, written in the "ballad register" of which I have already written—a style intended, I think, to conjure imagery from a bygone age of heroes.
No. 6 Wedding Day at Troldhauen
Innocent joy and festive excitement combine in this piece that is equally a march and a dance, with hints of folk instruments contrasting with hurrying passages, difficult to play with the restraint needed to build to the correct climax—where the music becomes downright virtuosic. The middle section is a slower, more tender theme in which the two hands respond back in forth, perhaps like the happy couple repeating their vows. The coda winds the piece down in a striking way.

Op. 68—6 Pieces
No. 1 Sailor's Song
Here's another piece that I seem to recall seeing or hearing in a youth-recital context. Simple almost to the point of chorale, it has the charming swagger of a lighthearted fellow who believes his appearance should inspire awe.
No. 2 Grandmother's Minuet
Crisp, delicate, with a whiff of starched lace contradicted by an athletic second theme, this piece will give Kevin a gratifying feeling of making great progress as he finds the rapid eighth-note runs and flouncy grace-notes falling naturally under his hands.
No. 3 At Your Feet
A slow, tender, ardent melody over a rolling left-hand pattern, moves through a variety of expressive permutations before closing with what sounds like a promise of unwavering devotion.
No. 4 Evening in the Mountains
The first page of this piece is remarkable for being one long, lonely, unaccompanied melody. It gets a dark, ominous accompaniment on the second page.
No. 5 Cradle Song
Though one of Grieg's particularly gentle melodies, this piece also makes beautiful use of his distinctive style of dissonance. It seems to fall asleep in the middle of (yawn) zzzzzzzz...
No. 6 Melancholy Waltz
Unlike your typical Chopin or Brahms Waltz, this piece is less about melody and more about harmony—again, particularly the use of dissonance to establish mood. In this case the mood is the kind of "erotic sadness" that I like to think of as the proper preserve of the tango. Unlike some other Waltzes by Grieg, I think it might be beautiful to see a couple dance to this piece.

Op. 71—7 Pieces
No. 1 Once Upon a Time
Again with the "ballad register"—but who's complaining? Grieg seems at home in it. A subtitle to the opening tempo marking claims that the piece is in the "Swedish folk tone," whatever that means. The main material is serious but not uncheerful; the middle section is contrastingly brisk, brilliant, and rustic sounding.
No. 2 Summer Evening
Slow beauty, strange colors, and a conclusion in which darkness settles without losing warmth, combine in this piece to paint a very effective tone-picture. And even while edging close to the limits of functional tonality, Grieg manages to sound exactly like himself.
No. 3 Puck
The kid who plays this for his fifth- or sixth-grade recital will be the reason a lot of other kids quit playing the piano. It's a madcap piece, full of virtuosic vivacity and off-kilter, weird touches.
No. 4 Peace of the Woods
The subject of the picture this piece paints is not far different from that of Summer Evening, but it is painted in an altogether different style: conventionally romantic, with wide-spaced broken chords rolling back and forth in the left-hand and the lower voice of the right, beneath a melody of wholesome sweetness. Only occasionally does the harmony surprise one's expectations.
No. 5 Halling
The opening outburst foreshadows strange surprises to come. Then begins another version of the traditional Norwegian dance seen earlier in this album. It progresses from good-natured sprightliness to athletic machismo, finally concluding with an extra-fast tempo that finally fulfills the twisted promise of the opening bar.
No. 6 Gone
Grieg again tests the stability of the tonal system with a theme whose chromatic progressions twist the ear's expectations. Maybe these drooping lines suggested grief to Grieg, but to my twenty-first-century ears, it is the piece's abrupt ending that suggests a sense of loss.
No. 7 Remembrances
The album closes with this piece in a Tempo di Valse—which is to say, a Waltz. Its pale, plaintive, almost consumptive-sounding melody floats over an orthodox Waltz rhythm, which only becomes interesting when Grieg threads it through some unexpected harmonic progressions—such as from E-flat to D major, then B-flat, and then by a deceptively chromatic transition back to E-flat. Ironically, given its title, the theme of this piece reminds me of another piece I think I remember playing, but which piece and by what composer? The remembrance eludes me...

1e.g., alternating 6/8 and 3/4 rhythmic patterns.
2e.g., simultaneous E and B major chords.
3i.e., similar material repeated at progressively higher or lower pitch levels.

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