The notes in the selection make reference to the similarity in style between this piece and other 'scenes of childhood' in the Romantic canon. After more research, it becomes clear just how much this piece, written in 1911, might be a reflection on lost innocence. Bortkiewicz's story is a sad one. A Polish noble by descent, he lived on the family estate near Kharkov until he went to work in Berlin, only to find that at the start of World War I, being Russian, he had to leave and return to Kharkov. This was to be the start of wanderings that dogged his working life. In 1918 he fled the family estate to escape the Communists who plundered it; a short while after, having tried to rebuild it after the war, the Red Army finally commandeered the estate. He witnessed his mother and brother-in-law die of typhus then went to Constantinople, penniless, in 1919. He became a teacher and performer, moving to Austria via Yugoslavia when visas became available.
From Austria he found his way back to Berlin, only to leave in 1933 as he feared persecution by the Nazis. His return to Vienna in 1935 was the final move and he stayed here for the remainder of his life. Financial hardship probably contributed to the depression his wife suffered, and sadly their marriage was destined to be childless too. Not until 1945 came the financial security they longed for from a position Sergei gained at the Vienna Conservatoire. Presumably his stoicism and the energy he put into performing, directing and composing helped him through so many hardships.
So, andantino doloroso suits the story, as do the dissonances in the left hand upper voices, e.g. bars 4 and 5. The thumb comes into its own here. There is such emotion to be brought out throughout the piece, in bars 13 to 15 and 21 to 23 particularly. Practising legato pedalling with the left hand and then the right hand separately first might be a good idea. The last two chords should be as thoughtful and reflective as possible. You either 'sink into the armchair' at the end with relief or resignation...So although this piece was composed before World War I, I hope thinking about Bortkiewicz's life will help in communicating the emotion in the piece!
I'm always amused when a composer writes 'Semplice' at the top of a piece - it invariably means the pianist has to work even harder! It's difficult to put simplicity across when playing much of Chopin for example, with left hand chords demanding a free arm and controlled weight of descent, arpeggiations or flourishes of cadenza-like ornamentation. Simplicity, however, lies in the style of the folk dance, and it is this that an audience will appreciate.
Chopin wrote mazurkas throughout his life, from age 15 in 1825 until his death in 1849. Each of them has 'an individual poetic feature, something distinctive in form or expression' wrote Schumann in a review of 1838. Even Artur Rubinstein showed the steps of different mazurkas to record producers in order to demonstrate their varied characters! Three folk dances are referenced in Chopin's mazurkas. They are:
(ii) the kujawiak (don't ask!) which is slow and tuneful
(iii) the oberek which is cheerful and exuberant, and comes from a word meaning 'to spin'
This piece has accents regularly placed on the second beat, which help it to move along into the next bar quite happily. They should be deliberate 'steps' forward, though, rather than anything that forces the tone. Rubato isn't specified, but being able to 'go with the flow' is important in the interpretation of the phrasing in such dances. Essentially there are only 32 bars to learn, which means that when the first theme reappears at bar 33, there should be some variety in articulation and dynamics. The mid-section is a bit of a surprise, with a bit of Schubertian tertiary shifting to an A flat; here the phrases are much shorter and the rubato feel will come into play more, with accents placed differently to the opening. Note that some performance directions are editorial. The accented ones make sense to follow, but I would also encourage a pupil to think about their own dynamic interpretations as long as they are appropriate. Pedalling should be 'light on the feet', just as the dance demands.
Grieg once complained half-jokingly to a composer friend, "Can't you please cure me of this affliction?" The affliction he was referring to was the habit of composing miniatures - to him they came so much easier than large-scale works. The nationalism developing in music at the end of the 19th/early 20th century was a big influence in Grieg's life and his beloved Norway, with its landscape, flora and fauna, features so much in his work.
It isn't difficult to see how the little bird, hopping, chirping and fluttering back and forth and up and down, should be painted; the lilting 6/8 time signature is also enjoyable to play. However there are some tricky turns and the accent changes require careful examination to articulate them precisely. Note the difference, for example, between the opening bars, then bars 9 to 12 and 13 to 16. The flurries from bar 21 onwards demand a lightness of touch and effortless synchronisation of the hands. I would recommend that a student practises some exercises slowly, one hand then the other and quickens gradually hands together to help with all those demisemiquaver passages. It's a good piece for developing deftness and precision. The ending is delightful, and imagining the little bird flying away into the distance will serve to project the molto pianissimo effectively.