Piano teaching

Coffee Shop Questions: Tackling Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor

Howard Smith and Frances Wilson exchange thoughts on Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K397

H: Approaching Grade Seven, you suggested I tackle this lovely work, Frances. I am enjoying the challenge. Listening to recordings of the Mozart, it seems there are degrees of freedom in interpretation. What could be more different than those of Mitsuko Uchida, Claudio Arrau and, most striking of all … Glenn Gould.  There is even a video on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhX-p1KFOS0) where the opening eleven bars, as performed by eight well known pianists, are compared and contrasted. Who would have thought it!

One pianist not in that list is Hong-Kong born, Tiffany Poon. (https://tiffanypoon.com/bio_eng/) She was first accepted to the Juillard pre-college program at the age of eight. And, in searching for recordings of the D Minor Fantasia, that is where I found Tiffany: a child playing Mozart. Hers is still, in my opinion, the best rendition and I have modeled my approach on hers. With a serious career in front of her, Tiffany also devotes time to making videos on YouTube where she is sharing her life as a musician, with the goal of peeling back the curtain on ‘classical’ music.

What is your view of the thorny matter of ‘interpretation’, in this and other music. Many teachers have firm views on how their pupils’ set pieces should be performed. I find this limiting, but it can also be used as an excuse. Does not being able to master a genre, as taught by a professional, point to lack of technique?

F: Interpretation is, as you say, a thorny matter! And views on it differ from teacher to teacher, pianist to pianist. Mozart, like Bach, suffers a great deal from the “tyranny of should” – that you should play it this way, or that way etc. So be wary of being told by a teacher that there is a “right way” to play this music – because there isn’t! 

Our own personal interpretation, our vision, if you will, comes not only from familiarity with and understanding of the notes on the page, but also context (listening to other works by the same composer, and not necessarily piano works – this Fantasia is very operatic, for example), our own experience. I don’t think that not being able to master a specific genre points to lack of technique, because technique is adaptable and interchangeable – you use the same drop slur technique for Mozart as you would for Chopin or Debussy, for example. I think mastery of a specific genre or composer is perhaps more to do with familiarity. 

In terms of recordings and YouTube clips of pianists playing this piece, by all means listen to and explore them, but don’t seek to imitate. Instead note the aspects you like/dislike about that pianist’s interpretation and when you are practising constantly listen and reflect on what you’ve played ‘ “did I like that?” “what did I do to create that sound?” “Can I recreate it?”. Interpretation is a lot about personal conviction – if you are convinced by what you are doing, and can justify such an approach, others will be convinced too.

H: In the Fantasia, it appears that choices of interpretation arise almost immediately, in the first few bars. The time signature says 2/2 (ABRSM 3227 sheet music), yet the triplets and the way they fall appear otherwise. One recording feels like a very distinct 12/8 to me. Another feels like 4/4. How do I achieve the duple feel and is that correct? And what does Andante mean in each?

F: The groupings of the triplets lend themselves to a clear 4-in-the-bar pulse, but I feel each bar should feel like a single gesture – perhaps as a string player might play them. I would approach each bar as a call (LH) and response (RH). 

Andante means “at a walking pace” and in this instance I personally feel the music should feel as if it is moving forward with a degree of purpose towards the climatic episode at bar 9. This sense of purpose might also inform your approach to the dynamic palette through this section.

H: There are no pedal markings on the score. This is the first Mozart I have played, and I do not enjoy a heritage of working at simpler pieces by him as a child. How would you pedal the piece during the first 11 bars, especially during the A Major arpeggio that ends that section?

F: Pedalling in Mozart is another thorny issue, the purists believing that one should treat the music as if playing it on a Mozart-era fortepiano! However, some pedal is needed in this piece, I think, to add colour and resonance. But you need to be sparing with the pedal. This is Mozart, not Liszt and therefore any pedal must be fairly restrained. Here it is purely for colouring, not to aid legato passages. 

In the opening section, I pedal on the beat. But I don’t pedal the A major arpeggio as I feel this need a special clarity and drama.

While you are still getting to grips with this piece, I would advise not even considering pedal for the time being. You can introduce it when you feel more comfortable around the music as by then you will have a better sense of where pedal will work and where it won’t.

H: Trying to get past the first section, I still have more questions? What mood to aim for. It feels ‘mysterious’?

F: Yes, mysterious is spot on, and perhaps improvisatory too (although this section is actually carefully constructed). I think the mood is unsettled and tense; there is a dramatic sense of foreboding as the music moves towards the A-major arpeggio.

H: Before we leave bars 1 to 11, that A Major arpeggiated descent … it’s still written in triplets but every recording I listen to slurs pairs of notes, falling on and straggling alternate ‘beats’. Why?

F: I think this may simply be the pianist’s use of rubato – a loosening on the strict tempo is permissible here to enhance the dramatic effect and emphasise the fermatas in bar 11. Again, experiment, listen and reflect and eventually you will settle on a version which convinces you – and will also convince others!

H:  Heading into the Adagio starting at bar 12, once again advice on pedalling would be helpful.  I’ve always found it hard to ‘keep close to the keys’ in the LH broken chords.

F: I’m not sure this section needs to be pedalled. Resonance comes from the sustained LH minim, and a good legato line is achievable in the RH with fingering alone (think of this as an operatic aria or recitative). For the LH chords aim for a tapping movement in the fingers. This line is in effect two voices – a bass and tenor.

H: I think I’m OK to the end of bar 22, but I initially found the demi-semi-quavers in bar 22 difficult to place after the initial dotted crotchet.

F: Treat the demisemiquavers as an ornament – a turn – and keep them light. They are “seasoning” to the melodic line (the falling A-G) and should not dominate it. 

H: Heading into bar 23, the start of what some people refer to as the ‘anxious’ section, I encounter several choices of interpretation. As written, the first of the RH semi-quavers (before the beat) are marked staccato and the next two notes slurred. Where is the emphasis? My teacher is telling me the emphasis remains on the beat, but in some recordings I hear it differently with the note before a new bar – the staccato note – being emphasised. Like jazz, there appears to be some decisions here, most a kind of syncopation. Am I right?

F: I feel the emphasis here should be on the beat and a touch of tenuto on those slurred A’s will enhance this. Again, I suggest that a syncopated feel may come from a performer’s use of rubato or little fluidity with pulse. The sense of anxiety comes from the rests, which treat almost as a sharp intake of breath.

H: The section from bar 23 (in D minor) and again, in a new key (C minor) at bar 38, I am finding VERY hard to learn. I think this is because in those two keys the pattern of black and white notes mirror each other. Any advice?

F: The section from bar 38 is a repeat of the earlier D minor section, transposed down a tone, rather than a mirror image of it. I would practice it slowly and retain a strong sense of the underlying pulse.

H: The Presto cadenza at bar 34 (and other cadenzas throughout the work) I am finding tortuous. Not only am I not achieving any speed, but the ‘shaping’ my teacher talks about is not happening – which seems to consist of elements of rubato, accelerando and rallentando, crescendo and diminuendo. Unless I can crack these passages, I won’t be able to play the piece at all. I think, with work, I will be able to play everything BUT the cadenzas.

F: Ok, first off, the cadenzas, or rather ‘transition passages’, are far easier than they may first appear. The Presto markings and note divisions (demisemiquavers for example) make these sections appear very fast and scary, but they are not. Simplify them – the one at bar 34 is, basically, a scale in repeating sections, with an additional note at the start and finish of each section, with 3 and a bit sections before you reach the arpeggio. Break it down into sections, and use the same fingering for each one. Practice them slowly and aim for drama rather than speed. The diminished 7th arpeggio can be shared between the hands – this makes it both easier to play and adds to the dramatic effect when performed. It needs to feel like one gesture, however, as if a single hand is playing it, and so to achieve this, the hands need to be well co-ordinated and nimble, to be in position for the next grouping. Penelope Roskell has a nice image for this kind of hand coordination – she calls is “pizza-making hands”, calling on the image of the pizza chefs at Pizza Express when they toss the pizza base from hand to hand to shape it. Use exactly the same approach for the second cadenza.

H: And again, as in the opening, there is the question of pedalling in the cadenzas themselves.

F: I don’t pedal them.

H: The second half of the piece, in D Major, starting at bar 55, looks, to my eye, as roughly grade 5 standard, or less. Yet I am finding it surprisingly hard to learn. I am tripping up on the simplest things, such as falling on D major chord instead of an A major chord at the end of the first 2/4 section, bar 62. Why do you think this is? I am told that Mozart is both hard to play well, and very ‘exposing’. Why is this?

F: The pianist Artur Schnabel famously said of Mozart’s piano sonatas “too easy for children, too hard for artists” and it is the precision and exposure which, I think, make his piano music so tricky. Maybe here you need a clear sense of the key change – which is mainly signalled in the LH chords. Again, slow practice, and take those last 2 bars out and work on them until both the feel of the notes under the hand and the harmony is well known.

H: For the rest, I think I will crack this, but it is taking FAR longer than I had imagined. While I am also working on other pieces, I really felt that by now in my journey I would be able to get on top of a piece like this more readily.

F: This is not an easy piece, not by any means. I can’t believe I was playing it at the age of 12, having just passed my Grade 5! It is a sophisticated and mature work and requires great control and precision but also a vivid imagination to fully express its dramatic intensity. Try not to do too much in one go. Stick to one section at a time, but also be heartened by the fact that certain sections repeat, if transposed. 

H: Thank you for all your advice, Frances. One last question if I may: this piece consists of several contrasting sections. I have heard others play it and so have a sense of things, and of tempo required, but at this stage of my practice a sense of ‘whole’ is missing. What can I do about this, if anything?

F: As I said before, it is operatic in its drama, and I would recommend some contextual listening including the Piano Concerto in D minor K466, and excerpts from Don Giovanni.

Further reading: Mozart and the Pianist – Michael Davidson (Kahn & Averil, London)

If you have questions on repertoire, practising, technique, piano exams or any other aspect of piano playing, please feel free toput them to Frances Wilson. All responses will be treated confidentially







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