A grand premiere of a keyboard work, published for the first time since its completion in 1945, is one of the highlights of the entire syllabus. The ABRSM are to be congratulated on the choice of this piece for the syllabus, which teaches pupils about the elements of prelude and fugue in a relevant historical context. Alwyn was writing this piece towards the end of WWII.
A1 Alwyn: Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian scale in G
The Indian scale, which is formed from the ascending pentatonic and descending diatonic, has a tranquil feel that can nevertheless form the basis for contrasts in tone and mood. The Prelude begins in thoughtful retrospection; gentle chords murmur in the bass while a dolce theme sings in the treble. These chords should never be allowed to become 'ploddy'; hands should be kept close to the keys, so careful practice with legato pedal is advisable. The theme is repeated almost immediately with ornamentation and in a higher register to add warmth - outer fingers will need to be kept close to the palms (and fingertips firm) to enable the 'clearly' direction to be realised. The emotional heart of the piece is from bar 19 to 29. Here the pace should have a feeling of moving on without being unduly hurried - it reminds me of Rachmaninov's preludes, a surge of emotion before returning to the theme thoughtfully and quietly. There is a lovely moment of calm and pause at bar 39 - this should be allowed to breathe to reflect thoughtfulness. A very tranquil ending leads us to segue fugue.
While the Prelude's theme forms the basis for the Fugue's subject, the mood of this section is far more celebratory and upbeat. This is heralded immediately by the use of accents in the left hand and these should be heard whenever they reappear. The countersubject in bars 4 and 5 is light in articulation by contrast. The weaving together of the themes culminates in what I can only describe as a joyous peal of bells from bars 17 to 20. The fortissimo descending chimes based on the first subject 'skip' into a quiet restatement of it in the bass, with augmentation in the treble. This is a gorgeous moment as it settles the listener before a very grand, triumphant ending. So rather than 'War and Peace', we should perhaps think of 'Peace and Celebration'.
I think this piece makes a refreshing change for the A List - a triumph in every respect. Let's hope our students enjoy it and do justice to it in the exam!
Ah, well, that might have been the case for JSB, but I think most of us would agree it's a bit more complicated than that! To be able to play Bach on both an organ and a piano must be a great advantage. However, there are numerous exponents of the great master whose renditions we can enjoy and compare. It's worth mentioning to pupils the different names, so they can make decisions about their own interpretations too: Gould, Hewitt, Schiff to name but a few. All marvellous, and thankfully they are all different, so there is no absolute 'right' way of interpretation, as long as the essence of the subject figures and the articulation to bring them across clearly are considered. By this time, of course, a high level of artistry will gain most marks in an exam situation.
The Prelude should not be started too fast - there is a presto section that begins with a dramatic pause at bar 28, and this should be contrasted well. Another reason for not starting too fast is so that the harmonic structure of the bars can be conveyed cleanly through the arpeggiated chords. Keeping it bouncy will enable nuances of touch to make the outline interesting, especially in bars 18 and following, where the build up to the dominant pedal begins. This should also broaden at bar 25, to allow the presto to develop after a dramatic pause. It shouldn't lose it's sense of line by being rushed and the canonic left hand should be allowed to shine through. The Presto section broadens again to an Adagio in which the first beats of bars 34 and 35 are emphasised in arpeggiation and ornament. There is room for freedom of expression here, almost as if the player is having a 'final say' before bringing the Prelude to a close. The conclusion is, essentially, a tempo and should become increasingly sensitive towards the end, with a slight ritardando that gives a sense of importance to the ensuing subject of the fugue. In bar 36, listen to the B natural die away, similarly with the C in bar 37. Two lovely moments before getting down to business...
This three part fugue, with subject and two counter-subjects, is in three voices: soprano, alto and bass. The main challenges relate to maintaining balanced tone rather than tricky fingerings, and for this reason... I always take time to go on a thematic treasure hunt with a pupil studying a fugue; there is fun in identifying the subjects but it has a serious purpose. One sees that the three voices maintain their integrity throughout, until chords bring the piece to an end. Therefore identifying where there should be lightness/staccato as opposed to legato fingering in the other hand is of utmost importance if the piece is to sparkle and honour the intentions of the master craftsman. It goes without saying that picking out episodes and practising them with an ear focussed on one part or the other will be required to get the balance as good as we can!
The left hand introduces the subject, the quavers of which should have a light touch. The first counter-subject comes at bar 4, and with cantabile tone and the second in bar 7. As we go through the piece, we can see that subject entries in the developments (bars 11/12, 15/16, 20/21 and 26/27) trigger both counter-subjects. Plenty of chasing around and fleeing going on here then! Episodes use similar material to add further detail to the counterpoint; these occur at bars 5/6, 9/10, 15/16 (see below for an example), 17-19 and 22-25.
I enjoy the sound of the low bass voice from bar 21 onwards, giving this voice an air of particular importance and which leads us towards a dramatic coda and ultimately the tierce de Picardie conclusion.
A3 Scarlatti: Sonata in F minor Kp239
Domenico Scarlatti left Italy to work in Portugal in 1719 and then onto Spain in 1728, where he remained at the Court. The Spanish flavour and royal atmosphere is readily identifiable in this piece in binary form.
This sonata is about four minutes of exhilarating octave leaps and sparkling scale runs if played in its entirety (of course repeats will be left out in an exam). It is also characterised by fanfares and pageantry - hence in the motifs wind instruments and drums can be imagined. Bar 15 introduces what I would term the 'castanet' moment, which occurs throughout the piece, sometimes in the treble, but also in the bass, where the drums imitate it. The fanfares are introduced in bars 25 to 34, where they become longer, sustained blasts in the form of suspensions.
There are opportunities for dynamic contrasts throughout the piece. For example, bars 21 to 24 could form a quieter echo response to bars 15 to 18. A graceful appoggiatura ends the first half in the dominant key.
The development section builds on the ideas set out in the first section, with opportunities for even more gradation in tone. For example, bars 40/42 can grow, then quieten in 43/44 before the scale passages in 45/6. Crescendo again through the castanets (!) until the ornamentation in bar 54. The later suspensions grow longer, thereby creating a broadening of tone before the ending in the tonic. This is a lovely piece that gives students an alternative to a fugue in the selected pieces of List A.