The Complete Chopin Mazurkas

CROSS BORDER: Bach and Shostakovich, Chopin, tango and Deep South blues

The Cross Border programme is a musical sketch of my life: from the Bach preludes and Gospel songs I played as a child, through to my first jazz love – Thelonious Monk – and my first ‘difficult’ composer – Charles Ives; from my travels across the Deep South of the United States, and first journeys in Latin America. Of course I play a lot of other music, and happily experiment or collaborate, and make thrilling new discoveries: but these are my touchstones, and together they form my North Star.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Four Preludes and Fugues

Even when I was a little girl, Bach was an essential composer for me. Why? Well, I thought he was jazzy and incredibly cool. His music always seemed to dance and sparkle, with wit and sharpness. His voice told a story, and it had immediacy – even while I attempted to play his fugues and pick through the counterpoint.

As an adult musician, I still turn to Bach almost every day. His music is clarity itself, yet it provokes all kinds of problems to be solved, technical and psychological. There seems to be almost no extraneous information on the page – tempi, touch and articulation – and yet there’s an enormous amount to uncover, in terms of stylistic choices. Ornamentation, colouring, to pedal or not pedal: all the things pianists mull over, worry about, experiment with and ultimately change over a period of years (compare Schiff’s early recordings of Bach with his more recent ones).

The story of how Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues came to be written is a Cold War tale. Sent against his will to Leipzig, as a cultural ambassador in 1950 (for a festival marking the bicentenary of Bach’s death) he found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. (No doubt he visited Bach’s grave, newly laid at the Thomaskirche.) Impressed by a hitherto unknown Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, who came prepared to play all 48 preludes and fugues, he returned to Moscow and composed 24 of his own, in five months. This monumental project was given a premiere, and subsequent majestic performances, by Nikolayeva. Shostakovich hadn’t studied Bach, or earlier music, as a student at Petrograd Conservatory; both his teacher Glazunov and the conservatory’s founder Rimsky-Korsakov thought Bach was boring, and music started with Haydn and Mozart. The Leipzig trip, and the revelation of Nikolayeva’s playing, produced an instantaneous reaction in him. Some of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are like lightening.

Bach Prelude and Fugue no 1 in C major BWV 846

The opening prelude is perhaps the most famous piece Bach wrote, initally composed for his children, and Anna Magdelena, his second wife. Followed by a smooth 4-part stretto fugue (where the fugue subject constantly overlaps).

Bach Prelude and Fugue no 2 in C minor BWV 847

Spiky, jazzy, witty prelude and fugue. I was in love with Jacques Loussier’s recording of this when I was a little girl.

Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue no.19 in E flat major Op 87

I’ve chosen to go to the related key of E flat, which in Bach’s world (with three flats) depicts the Trinity, and in Beethoven’s, heroism. Shostakovich’s prelude sounds heroic, but edgy. The fugue in particular (in 5/4) is highly chromatic, and full of anxiety.

Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue no 15 in D flat major Op. 87

One of the high points of Shostakovich’s cycle, and is often played by pianists as a stand-alone piece. The prelude is a wild, drunken waltz, and the fugue a staggeringly crazy chromatic whirl, with constantly changing time signatures.

Frédéric Chopin   

Six Mazurkas

Op 6 no 1 in F sharp minor

Op 17 no 2 in E minor

Op 59 no 2 in A flat major

Op 30 no 3 in D flat major

Op 17 no 4 in A minor

Op 50 no 3 in C sharp minor

Chopin’s fifty-eight Mazurkas form one of the greatest collections of piano literature – some say the greatest. Subtle, soulful, energetically witty, tragic and dramatic, they can be viewed in a multiplicity of ways: as a diary of Chopin’s most private thoughts; his laboratory for trying out new ideas and techniques; and as a way into his absolutely unique style of playing – improvisatory, intimate rather than showy, often reflective, passionate. Lastly, Chopin’s Mazurkas represent remembering: his family, his homeland and above all Polish folk music and culture.

For younger and older pianists, amateur and professional, the Mazurkas are very attractive. Most are very short, but provide a rich landscape of ideas and emotions. They’re harmonically sophisticated, but totally understandable. They’re also revolutionary: the composer Robert Schumann immediately grasped their political nature, understanding that their open fifths, peasant dance rhythms and modal tunes were an open, and continuing, protest against Russia’s invasion of Poland. ‘If the Russian Tsar understood how dangerous these simple melodies were, Schumann wrote, ‘he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are canons buried in flowers.’

Lost Highways, American Journeys

Charles Ives (1874-1954) The Alcotts (from Concord Sonata)

Thelonious Monk (1917-82) Monk’s Point

Traditional Deep River

Professor Longhair (1918-80) Big Chief

Traditional Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down

American music always was big draw for me. It has a unique way of being classical, jazzy, contemporary and traditional all at the same time, and I grew up playing Gospel hymns like Deep River and Ain’t No Grave in the local Gospel church. America’s first great classical composer, Charles Ives, was gloriously anarchic, and drew on gospel hymns and brass bands, but The Alcotts is a gentler piece, an improvisatory meditation on the opening ‘Fate’ theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – alongside American folk and parlour songs.

I was given a cassette (remember those?) of Thelonious Sphere Monk playing jazz solo when I was 14. It was all very difficult for me, but to try and get to grips with someone I knew intuitively would be an anchor (those harmonies! that great way of poking and coaxing the piano!), I lovingly transcribed the quirkily humorous Monk’s Point, with a great stride left hand. Don’t believe people who tell you Monk had a bad piano technique: he knew exactly what he was doing. Not only one of jazz’s greatest innovators, thinkers and composers, but a great player too.

Curious about the South, I got into the habit of visiting Mississippi and Lousiana, where I rifled through old music shops and caught music played in bars, tiny festival stages, clubs. The inestimable Professor Longhair is a giant of New Orleans music, and his seminal Big Chief – particularly its left hand riff – single-handedly invented funk: as Dr John says, ‘Professor Longhair put ‘funk’ into music; he’s the father of the stuff.’

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)

Six Tangos arr MacGregor

Tanguedia

Buenos Aires Hora Cero

Milonga del Angel

Michelangelo 70

Soledad

Libertango

Astor Piazzolla was a master of the bandoneon – the Argentine accordion – and single-handedly re-invented Argentina’s greatest musical form, the tango, with a great deal of controversy. Spending his childhood in a poor part of New York (where his parents worked for the Mafia), he headed back to his hometown Buenos Aires at 16, and formed his own orchestra. It took him 20 years to conquer the hearts of the aficionados – and his melting pot of modern jazz, classical and folkloric Latin music so incensed tango purists that he regularly received death threats, adding to his already tumultuous private life and financial failures. Really big hits, like Milonga del Angel and Libertango, ensured Piazzolla was finally recognized as genius, whose dark music is steeped in Hispanic, Italian and Jewish ideas.