Last weekend we were treated to our first composer-specific course; focusing on the works of Chopin and led by Warren Mailley-Smith.
Warren is the first British pianist to publicly perform Chopin’s complete works for solo piano entirely from memory, at a series of 11 concerts in London in 2016. He is currently recording the complete works of Chopin over a 3-year period for a 12-disc set for Sleeveless Records…
Here he is in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km5xg6yjK6I
Warren explains “what gives Chopin’s music such great appeal is a rare gift for melody combined with a breath-taking harmonic inventiveness”.
Over the weekend we explored the key elements that characterise Chopin’s music:
The ‘singing’ quality that Chopin embodies in his beautiful, lyrical phrases. The quality of sound is paramount in playing Chopin’s music and essential for the performer to cultivate a beautiful tone.
To do this, we must practice using arm weight with a flexible wrist, balancing the melody and accompaniment.
Rubato is the give and take within the rhythm of the bar – allowing flexibility, without losing the overall stability. When performing, the pianist must dictate both the rhythm and the sense of rubato.
“Your left hand should be the conductor” Warren explains.
Bel canto can be described as playing in a singing style, within a beautifully shaped phrase. The performer must always have an awareness of the line – how the phrase leads to its destination.
Bel canto is also characterised by the use of embellishments and avoidance of accents (particularly on high notes) to create a smooth melodic line.
Ornaments and decoration
As Chopin’s work is very much based on the Cantabile style, we were encouraged to make a feature of this. Warren explained that it can be useful to sing the ornaments, establishing the correct tempo – they should feel free and not be rushed.
Significant in so many of Chopin’s most famous works, including the distinctive ‘Raindrop’ prelude No.15, with the repeated A flat, signifying the ‘Raindrop’. Although a significant motif, it mustn’t dominate the texture.
This forms a beautiful contrast to the more passionate sections of Chopin’s works, for instance, in the cantabile section of Fantasy impromptu Op.66 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75x6DncZDgI
Warren’s insights provided us with a valuable set of ways to inform our own performance of Chopin’s work, we are also better equipped to appreciate performances by other musicians.
Our next specialist weekend led by Warren is Debussy and the Romantics.