B1 Mingxin Du and Zuqiang Wu : The Dance of the Watergrass
This Chinese piece could be approached by thinking of an Impressionist painter's palette as well as from the point of view of grass movement alongside and in the water - different sections are shades of green (major) and blue (minor). The first eight bars set the scene and give the performer the chance to show that they have developed good independent control of the fingers! From then on the left hand represents the waving of the grasses, while the right hand becomes the gentle lapping or rippling of the water. In general one should maintain freedom in the arms to allow the hands to move side to side in these semiquaver passages, just like the movement of the grasses in the breeze.
It's important to notice how the tonality keeps shifting from major to minor and back again; keep checking that accidentals aren't missed. The phrase lengths vary a lot and should be given careful consideration if lines are not to be broken. There are some right hand thirds/chords to be negotiated carefully and without undue accent, for example.
The tranquillo section is a lyrical interlude, brought out with subtlety by the left hand and should be just a shade stronger than the right hand. Tone should rise and fall gently with the pitch movement. When we get to bar 50, there is a dramatic shift back into the tonic major and the sun comes out (!) - think golden yellow to add warmth to the playing here. Pedalling should in this section will change more frequently than in the first main theme, where perhaps once a bar will suffice for the most part.
This is a lovely piece, but I keep playing the ending and wondering whether it would have been more effective to linger on arpeggiated chords such as the one in bar 83 and include a ritardando. After all the flowing, the V-I seems rather perfunctory. It would make an interesting discussion about composition with a pupil!
"How many verbs can you think of to describe the movement of water?" That is the first question I might ask a pupil who wanted to explore this piece. The brook goes through so many different moods, that compiling a list and placing them throughout the score might help to create this sound picture. It is particularly demanding for the right hand, with lots of changes in articulation, so lots of separate hand practice will be prescribed.
We might be following the course of the brook during a countryside stroll, or watching it from a distance. The brook begins in very relaxed mood, almost still, then in bars 3 and 7 begins swirling gently round the rocks? In bar 17 we hear water droplets and there are also little cascading manoeuvres from bar 22. I wouldn't use any pedal at all here, in contrast to the opening where there are triplet quavers and minims held over. I would bring it back in with the minim/crotchet bars to make the most of the slowed approach to the reprise of the main theme in bar 33. Tempo-wise, it's a bonus that the metronome mark has some flexibility, as indicated in the notes to the piece.
What might we imagine is happening at the end? Is a leaf or twig gradually disappearing from view down the water course, or we walking away from it as we continue our own journey? I think this piece will be very popular with pupils because of its accessibility - certainly compared to the challenges of the next one...
First, what stands out immediately are the chords, chords and more chords! In some bars they are not too taxing, due to repetition, and as long as the student has well-developed hands. Where they move and/or are somewhat chromatic in texture, then analysing them from bottom up might be a good idea. From that we can see which parts actually move. Bars 7, 11 and 21 stand out as the trickiest; bar 7's bass note moves down in a whole-tone scale and the chords are essentially inversions of the descending melody line in the left hand. In bar 11, gripping the notes carefully close to the keyboard will enable the mysterious elements to come through. At first bar 21 might seem a bit scary! Time, focus, patient practice and good listening skills....students who choose it will need these.
The next thing that stands out is the dynamic range - all within the quiet spectrum. It is a study in using just the right amount of arm weight and keeping fingers close to the keys. Geoffrey Tankard, in his Foundations of Pianoforte Technique, has exercises for playing chords through different dynamics, and doing something similar with the chords in this piece, with close listening, will be of great benefit. I am indebted to the late great Bernard Roberts, who helped me a lot with this technique during a stay at the Chetham's Summer School some years ago (in the context of Debussy, but it can be applied here too).
Crossing over of hands is something else to practise so it happens gracefully and without undue pressure - the fingers should lean gently into the minims and keep the triplet quavers even. Both pedals should be used all the way through, but care needs to be taken not to fudge the harmonies with either. The ending of the piece is sublime.
Up next: the C list, with the return of an old friend...