The alphabetical exploration of the piano concludes with Z for Zany, an affectionate look at the role of the piano in comedy. Told at the keyboard by pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe.
29/10/2012 • 6 minutes 40 seconds
Y for Yellow River
In 1969 at the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution the Yellow River Piano Concerto, commissioned by Madame Mao, received its highly politicised premiere. Despite being banned from Chinese musical life in 1976 it has slowly filtered back into the musical mainstream in a country with a huge affinity with the piano today. To say that 30 million Chinese school children are learning to play the instrument is a conservative estimate: some say the figure is as high as 90 million. For the Chinese the piano has become a potent symbol of the importance of hard work and dedication, as well as the perfect instrument for the one-child family system.
26/10/2012 • 9 minutes 9 seconds
X for X-treme
Although every instrument has a history of extreme techniques, the piano seems to have attracted more than its fair share of people wanting to see how far it, and they, could go. From Beethoven, who was known for destroying pianos during the course of a performance, through to John Cage (who invented the prepared piano by inserting screws, rubbers and bolts into it) and beyond, this episode of the Piano A–Z is not for those of a sensitive disposition.
25/10/2012 • 7 minutes 7 seconds
W for Workshops
What goes into the making of a piano? How do the pianos of today differ from those which Liszt or Debussy might have played? In the central London workshop of Steinway's, there are stripped down pianos everywhere, skeletons with their strings and frames exposed, and benches with vices and chisels like any carpenter would use. The scene is much like it would have been a hundred years ago, and Steinway still employs apprentices who are trained in the craft and art of piano maintenance.
Ulrich Gerhartz, their Director of Concerts and Artist Services explains what goes into the crafting of Steinway's delicately balanced instruments, and pianist Stephen Hough reflects on how changes in the manufacture of pianos means that the sounds he makes today are very different from the virtuosi of the past.
23/10/2012 • 8 minutes 12 seconds
V for Virtuoso
Virtuoso is a term applied to many of the world's top pianists of today. With its roots in the Italian usage of the 16th and 17th centuries, a virtuoso is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in any intellectual or artistic field. But it takes much more than just playing demi-semi quavers on a keyboard to dazzle an audience. So what are the true qualities of virtuosity and which particular composers are regarded as virtuosi, writing music to show off their own technical prowess at the keyboard? Featuring Lang Lang, Angela Hewitt and Stephen Hough.
22/10/2012 • 7 minutes 12 seconds
U for Upright
‘A sort of musical fungus attached to the walls of semi-detached houses in the provinces’ is how celebrated conductor and fount of bons mots Sir Thomas Beecham once described the upright piano. In ‘U is for Upright’ there’s one attached to the wall in the childhood home of concert pianist Jonathan Biss, another played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in a pizzeria which becomes an unlikely Youtube hit, and a third in a London pub which helps oil the wheels of a convivial evening.
19/10/2012 • 7 minutes 36 seconds
T for Tuning
The issue of tuning has been a live one ever since Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras was pinching strings and scratching his head over harmonic discrepancies 2,500 years ago. For a keyboard instrument such as the piano with its multiple strings, until the system of Well Temperament was popularised in the early 18th century, instruments would only really sound good tuned to a certain key. Thanks to the Well-Tempered method of tuning though, and yes, Bach knew what he was doing when he wrote that collection of pieces in all 24 keys to be played on the same instrument, the pianist now has freedom to transpose freely across the keyboard. Yet, piano tuning is a highly nuanced art, affecting the tone and colour of an instrument. With razor-sharp hearing and an ability to creatively play with the compromises necessary to tune a piano, the piano tuner still plays a key role in preparing an instrument for performance. Featuring Marcus du Sautoy, Angela Hewitt and Richard Foster.
17/10/2012 • 8 minutes 59 seconds
S for Sustain
The sustain pedal, usually the one on the right, is the most commonly used pedal in a modern piano. When pressed it sustains all the damped strings on the piano by moving the dampers away from the strings and allowing them to vibrate freely so all the notes being played will continue to sound until the pedal is released. Until the Romantic era of Chopin and Liszt it was considered a special effect, but in the 19th century it came to be regarded as an essential element of piano sound. Featuring Stephen Hough, Ivan Ilic and Kenneth Hamilton.
16/10/2012 • 8 minutes 58 seconds
R for Repetiteur
Répétiteurs are so much more than just pianists. Sure, they have to be able to get around the keyboard. But they also have to be able to read the multiple lines of a full score, coach singers, take the role of an orchestra and, in a nutshell, know the opera they are rehearsing probably better than anyone else involved in the process. And those are just some of the musical skills. Because a répétiteur must also be at once musically self-effacing, a linguist and a diplomat who can accommodate and reconcile the often conflicting demands of singers, conductors and directors. But, despite all that, there's no first-night curtain call for this vital figure.
15/10/2012 • 7 minutes 47 seconds
Q for Queues
Which great pianists would be worth queuing for? Piano fans queued around the block in 1965, to see the return of Vladimir Horowitz, one of the century's most celebrated pianists, after a twelve year break from live performance. And in the age of internet booking, piano audiences are no less passionate, dedicated and sometimes frenzied. Richard Sisson, Erica Worth, Eddy Smith, Jonathan Biss, Stephen Hough, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Angela Hewitt discuss the role of a good audience in creating a great performance.
11/10/2012 • 9 minutes 2 seconds
P for Page Turner
It should be simple. All you have to do is turn a page of a score while the pianist’s hands are otherwise engaged. But page turning is fraught with difficulties, for both pianist and turner. What if you’re turning pages and a bee flies into your shirt and stings you? What if you’re playing and every time you need the page turned, the heaving embonpoint of your turner obscures your view of the music? Top of the list of Thankless Tasks, the essential but stressful job of page turning is only successful if it passes unnoticed. Find out what makes an accomplished page turner; being one of the world’s foremost pianists is not necessarily a qualification. Featuring Pierre Laurent Aimard, Iain Burnside, Ivan Ilic and Alice Farnham.
10/10/2012 • 7 minutes 34 seconds
O for Orchestra
How do you practice a concerto without an orchestra? Who controls a concerto - conductor or soloist? Are there any similarities between taking the role of soloist and sitting at the back as the anonymous orchestral pianist? Guests Stephen Hough, Lucy Parham and Ben Dawson paint a picture of solitary practice rooms, the pressure of not missing your cue, going into battle with an orchestra and the thrill of a Tchaikovsky piano concerto.
09/10/2012 • 7 minutes 29 seconds
N for Novels
The piano has played a starring role in some the nation's best loved novels, acting as a signifier of everything from social class to seduction. Professor John Mullan guides listeners through some of the most memorable novelistic piano moments, starting with Jane Austen's Persuasion - where the piano finds itself at the centre of a plot typically fraught with issues of class and gender, then on to Emily Bronte's Jane Eyre, where Blanche Ingram puts the piano to use as a 19th century flirtation technique in her quest to impress the brooding Mr Rochester. In EM Forster's A Room with a View and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, it's the experience of listening to the piano - or not listening to it - that enables the novelists to shine a revealing light on their characters. Featuring Juliet Stevenson.
08/10/2012 • 8 minutes 38 seconds
M for Movies
Piano improviser extraordinaire, Harry the Piano, silent film accompaniment specialist Neil Brand and writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet – all experts in the field of film music – explore the role of the piano in movies, from the very first days of silent cinema, through Brief Encounter's immortalisation of Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto, to modern classics such as Michael Nyman's haunting music for The Piano.
04/10/2012 • 7 minutes 21 seconds
L for Left Hand
The right hand may be the belle of the ball but the left hand is no dowdy Cinderella. The left hand is a fundamental part of piano music - literally, the fundamental is the root part of every note on the piano.
A strong left hand is crucial to successfully playing Bach, but what motivates a pianist to tackle the fiendish work of Godowsky who transcribed the already difficult Chopin preludes for the left hand alone? For some, such as Nicholas McCarthy who was born without his right hand, left-handed repertoire is the only option.
03/10/2012 • 8 minutes 15 seconds
K for Keys
There are sad keys and glad keys, so they say; F sharp minor is turbulent and C major is sunny. Every pianist knows how a key feels under their fingers, as every key has its own combination of black and white on the keyboard. Before the Baroque period, keyboards had to be re-tuned to play in each different key. But with the development of the modern piano, so-called “equal temperament” evened out the differences between the keys. One great masterpiece represents this development – JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, which expresses his faith in the new tuning system by having pieces in all the 24 different major and minor keys. But another curious factor of keys still remains a problem – the fact that different countries tune their pianos to different pitches. So middle C is, for instance, a bit higher in Germany than in the UK. Featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Iain Burnside and David Owen Norris.
02/10/2012 • 7 minutes 39 seconds
J for Jazz
Ever since the early ragtime of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton the piano has been a key instrument in the development of Jazz. Associated with the smoky bar-room, the instrument allows the jazz pianist to play all the elements of the band - stretching the harmony, roll a great rhythmic bottom-end, and improvise singing, soaring melodies. Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock, among others, all stretched what the Jazz piano could do. Featuring Julian Joseph and Gwilym Simcock.
01/10/2012 • 10 minutes 7 seconds
I for Improvisation
Some people can do it and some can't – sit down at the keyboard and simply make music up on the spur of the moment. The piano can be the perfect instrument for jazz improvising, capable of a vast range of sounds from the percussive to the lyrical. But there are many ways to improvise – classically trained players may choose to follow clear structures in improvising, for instance in the cadenza of a concerto; and jazz musicians will often have at least a fixed chord sequence from which to elaborate; whereas a silent film accompanist often improvises spontaneously to a film which may last for an hour or more, having never seen it before sitting down to perform to an audience of cinema-goers. And in the genre known as Free Improvisation, the pianist tries to avoid all pre-thought or pre-arranged structures, and be completely open to the ideas of the moment when hammer strikes string. Featuring Gwilym Simcock, Stephen Horne, Harry the Piano and Ivan Ilic.
27/09/2012 • 7 minutes 9 seconds
H for Hiring
Often when a concert pianist steps onto the stage to perform, they have to play a piano that has been hired. Surprisingly, while many are in great shape, sometimes they aren't. Sometimes they are appropriate for the repertoire about to be played and sometimes not. The challenge for the artist is to work out how to play this piano in such a way that the concert is the best it can be. How does a pianist coax a beautiful performance out of the hired concert grand? Featuring Pierre Laurent Aimard, Richard Sisson, Jonathan Biss and Ulrich Gerhartz.
26/09/2012 • 7 minutes 51 seconds
G for Glenn Gould
Glenn Gould was a Canadian pianist who became one of the best-known and most celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century. He was particularly renowned as an interpreter of the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Gould was well known for his unorthodox musical interpretations and mannerisms at the keyboard. He stopped giving concerts at the age of 31 to concentrate on studio recording and other projects. Featuring Kevin Bazzana, Murray Perahia, Stephen Hough, David Owen Norris and Gidon Kremer
25/09/2012 • 8 minutes 44 seconds
F for Fingers
The piano is an unusual musical instrument in that all ten digits of the performer can be used to sound different notes simultaneously. Fingers need practice, and practice makes perfect. Working hard to build strength and dexterity is part and parcel of every pianist's story, and just as in sport, exercises are a necessary evil. But what can start out as a chore when young can eventually become a pleasure when technique is more advanced and exercises turn into Chopin or Moskowski Etudes – written and designed for developing technique but also being very beautiful music. Featuring Lucy Parham, Gwilym Simcock, Richard Sisson and David Owen Norris
24/09/2012 • 8 minutes 2 seconds
E for Encores
There's an art to choosing and performing an encore, even for the world's top pianists. Being invited to return to the stage calls for a choice that complements but doesn't upstage the programme the audience have just heard. And it mustn't keep the orchestra sitting too long with nothing to do. It must be prepared and yet feel like a spontaneous treat. Above all, it's a pleasure. Featuring Lucy Parham, Stephen Hough, Lang Lang and Angela Hewitt.
21/09/2012 • 8 minutes 49 seconds
D for Duets
The piano is rare in that it's an instrument that can be played by two people at the same time. The intimacy of sharing a stool and playing shoulder to shoulder can make for a very pleasant experience. And there are many great pieces of music composed for piano duet. Views from the stage and from the rehearsal room come from David Owen Norris, Pascal and Ami Roge and the Labeque sisters.
20/09/2012 • 6 minutes 55 seconds
C for Competitions
Competitions are a vital part of many classical pianists' careers. They are a testing ground, and a way to get noticed in a crowded field. But are they an exciting way to make a name as a young musician, a necessary evil, or are they in fact not necessary at all?
Featuring Stephen Hough, Lucy Parham, Angela Hewitt and Pierre Laurent Aimard.
19/09/2012 • 7 minutes 55 seconds
B for Boogie-Woogie
This is an energetic and rhythmic style of piano playing that originated in the Southern States of America in the early 20th century. The rumbling left-hand rhythm was often used to evoke trains and railroad travel, and the buoyant energy of the music was popular to dance to in the juke joints and barrelhouses. Famous early exponents included Jelly Roll Morton, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.
Featuring Jools Holland and Peter Silvester.
18/09/2012 • 7 minutes 5 seconds
A for Action
The action, or hammer mechanism, is the defining development in the history of the piano. It is the complex mechanical balancing act connecting the pianist to the strings, from the key to the hammer, allowing minute control of loud and soft, allowing each pianist to express themselves in their own unique way.
Featuring Angela Hewitt, David Owen Norris and Ulrich Gerhartz.