Saturday, 23 June 2012

Learning Oiseaux Tristes

A few years ago - I'm not sure exactly when, but it seems like a long time ago - I started learning a piece of Ravel (with the guidance of my piano teacher.) Although Ravel is by far my favorite classical composer, most of his piano music is so hard that I hadn't been able to tackle any of it yet.
The piece I was learning was Oiseaux Tristes from the Miroirs. I can't remember why I chose this piece, but it is relatively short and quite slow, so it probably seemed less daunting to me than some of the other works. I was also very familiar with it from having listened to Robert Casadesus's Complete Piano Works of Ravel literally hundreds of times.
As a result, I plunged into learning the Oiseaux with a very clear idea of how it was meant to sound, and didn't need to pay much attention to a lot of the written-in time changes, dynamics and unusual rhythms because they were already firmly embedded in my mind. In fact, I only realised how strange the timing is quite recently while re-working the piece - I'd never noticed before that there are two time signatures in the right hand, for example!

So, I managed to learn almost all of Oiseaux Tristes, or at least familiarise myself with how it felt to play it. But there were two things that prevented me from working it up to a performance standard.
One was the very fast demisemiquaver passage that begins the climactic middle section of the piece. I'd be playing the whole thing through, going quite well, then I'd hit that passage and have to suddenly stop and haltingly play it at quarter-speed, completely disrupting the flow. I just couldn't figure out how anyone could play that passage - it seemed completely impossible to me, and I felt like giving up.
Slightly less terrifying, but still off-putting, was the 'ad lib' section near the end. More recently, I decided to learn this section properly, and succeeded. But that first demisemiquaver passage in the middle of the piece continued to stop me in my tracks every time.

A couple of weeks ago, my piano teacher Stephen announced that he was planning his annual students concert, and asked me what I wanted to play. I had no idea! There were only 3 weeks left till the concert, but I didn't want to just play all the same things I'd been working on for ages and already performed once or twice. I racked my brains.
One night I randomly decided to sit down at the piano and play through some of the pieces I particularly love, but haven't learnt properly, or can only play bits of. This is something I do every now and then to make sure I don't forget what I DO know of these works.

One of the things I played was the Ravel Miroirs. As I was playing Oiseaux Tristes, I suddenly thought, 'I could work this up and play it at my teacher's concert!' Why I thought of this I have no idea, but the idea stuck and at my next lesson I played the piece for Stephen, taking the opportunity to beg for assistance with the monstrous demisemiquaver passage that had been hindering my progress for so long.
'It's easy,' Stephen explained, demonstrating (while I shook my head in disbelief). 'You just put a thumb under here.'
I tried it and voila! It actually was easy. I was astonished! How could something so simple have eluded me for so long, meanwhile preventing me from learning this piece that I loved so much?! A week later I found I could play through the once-terrifying demisemiquaver passage without a glitch.

Today I performed Oiseaux Tristes for the first time, in my teacher's concert. It was part of a diverse selection that included Bach and Bartok. To start with I was only going to play the Bach from memory, but two days before the concert I tried playing the other pieces from memory and found that not only could I do it, but my performance was much better as a result. So I decided to play all three pieces from memory.

Performing the Ravel was quite a new experience for me. Usually I feel oddly detached when I'm performing, as if my fingers are a machine over which I have no control and are completely disconnected from my brain. I played a movement from Bach's 1st keyboard partita (which you can hear here) right before the Ravel, which made it even weirder, as I was definitely playing the Bach in 'auto-pilot' mode. But when I started playing the Ravel, I forgot about the audience, and the fact that I was performing - forgot about everything except the music. It was very intense and emotionally draining. While this is something that often happens when I'm playing at home without any performance pressure or nerves, it's never happened in a performance before.

Inevitably I didn't play it perfectly, and I would very much like to make a 'studio' recording of this work later on (along with a video) so I can get a perfect take. In the meantime, here is the recording of today's performance of Oiseaux Tristes......

(Below is a photo of me playing on the day. Judging from the position of my hands I'd guess that I'm playing the last few bars of Oiseaux Tristes, but I could be completely wrong!)

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