It’s amazing that at 3 a.m. in the morning, I’d be fussing around with the Chopin Nocturne in E minor (Op. 72, No. 1) that I’d previously embedded in a blog about revisiting old repertoire. Either my kind neighbors love classical music, or they’ve managed to double pack their ears with spongy stopples. (These can be permanently “embedded” if one is not careful)
So lucky for me, with my unplugged, wide open ears, I had the benefit of a long distance communication from Seymour Bernstein (author, With Your Own Two Hands) who emailed me constructive criticism related to the Chopin. Basically, he zeroed in on what I knew in my sub-conscious to be on point–but because of my DNA connection to the piece, I was just too embedded in it (not that word, again, please consult a Thesaurus)
It was one of those situations, where I knew that I’d over-exaggerated my rubato, perhaps, but of more concern was my tendency to play unsynchronized bass/treble notes. You know what I mean, when the right and left hand should come together and not be schmaltzed up to high heaven, and divided all over the place. It’s what Liberace might do, or the celebrated hypochondriac pianist, Oscar Levant, who played Gershwin. He made it a point to exhibit all his illnesses on 1950s TV, kvetching the whole time on the Jack Paar Show, sniveling, snorting- about to pass out before a commercial break.
My family had an old 78 of his Chopin which I’ll have to dig up. In those days, the vinyls were very long-lasting, like some of Liberace’s half cadences, rolls and flourishes.
I’d imagined a less mannered interpretation as had permeated my last reading, and having Seymour Bernstein’s long-distance coaching would level me out. It was nothing short of a mitzvah (blessing in Hebrew)
But before I go further, here’s a comparison of conditions for each home-based recording of the Nocturne.
1)The first performance, previously embedded, was rendered at a civilized hour so my fingers didn’t feel like icicles. Here in Fresno, it’s dipped below 32 degrees at night so we’re having a honeymoon, of sorts, because the next season is our normally sizzling summer, with 100 degrees in the shade. (We are basically bi-seasonal with the help of global warming.)
2) In the second recording made at 3 a.m., my hands were ice balls, so forget the trills, if you can manage to find them–For relief, I’d shoved my bare hands in front of a portable heater, blocked by Aiden Cat who didn’t appreciate being pulled from his sun bath. He would otherwise be rattling the blinds, or tipping over nick knacks.
To be more precise about what I was thinking about before I attempted a Chopin Nocturne MAKEOVER, here’s what Seymour Bernstein recommended after hearing my first performance:
(I hope this advice will help others who are studying the composition)
“Some theorists hold to Chopin always beginning trills on the upper note. But that practice ceased with late Bach and Mozart. It comes down to personal choice. And choices are usually made on what the melody is doing”.
My comment: Bernstein is spot on. I appreciated the advice that the trill should preferably start on the principle note. (If you can bake your hands in a warm oven, you have a shot at playing any trill in the dead of winter) I ended up reducing my first few to upper neighbor ornaments. Don’t copy me.
“I like your new fingering. I divide that passage rhythmically as follow: 123, 1234, 1234.” (He’s referring to measure 37 with those 11 insanely bunched up treble notes crowding into one beat)
My chosen fingering was 1,2, 1,2, 123, 1234
“If you record it again, be sure to play your hands together more often, especially on downbeats. Of course one divides hands for special moments.”
In my first reading I had too many special moments, so don’t copy me. I made it a point to have less of them in the second performance.
Second, improved reading: I’m not gloating over this one, but it’s on the way to the next, which will be followed by another. The process is never-ending. (But I’ll admit to being in a happier place listening to this rendition)
Mikhail Pletnev, the great Russian pianist, always bemoans the existence of recordings, comparing them to mirrors of fixed, undesirable images.
I like to think of them as springboards to improve one’s playing and to grow as a pianist over time.
About Oscar Levant:
A reminder that the man’s celebrity was based upon his reputation as a pianist. He studied with Sigismond Stojowski, a friend and student of Paderewski. He also was a member of George Gershwin’s inner circle.
Levant was considered a genius by some, in many areas. (He himself wisecracked “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity.”)