Rameau: Les Cyclopes

While I still have a way to go to finish the Grade 6 pieces, I wanted to finalize a selection from List A for Grade 8. It’s not a period of music I instinctively ever want to learn and I wasn’t enthusiastic about more Bach to be honest. So I had a look at the list and attempted to find a good reason to learn the Scarlatti that was on the list. I failed.

I’ve chosen this:

Les Cyclopes, Rameau as interpreted by Vikingur Olafsson

There is a really great version by Grigory Sokolov around too and what fascinates me is how how different the various interpretations are. I suspect in part it’s because it was written in the early half of the 18th century, at a time when the composers did not necessarily leave much on the way of instruction, given they were written for harpsichord and this allows today’s musicians some latitude in how they play the pieces. But there are elements of this that I absolutely love.

Rameau_Les Cyclopes Extract
Extract from IMSLP version of Les Cyclopes by Rameau

You can find the sheet music here. I congratulate myself on finding a particularly antique version of it. I think it’s the first edition. Currently, it looks like the best publisher to get this from is Barenreiter – it’s not on Henle’s digital library and Barenreiter appear to have a couple of options to get it in print. I don’t think it’s on their digital library yet. In theory I am not in a hurry to get this. But I will still try to buy it tomorrow. I’m not sure I want 43E worth of Rameau, on the other hand I am supposed to be upping my sightreading game too. We will see what is supposed to be there.

Leif Ove Andsnes – Henri LeBoeuf Hall, Brussels

Just before I went on holiday, I was lucky enough to catch Leif Ove Andsnes playing Beethoven 5 in Brussels. It’s the second time I’ve heard that piece although previously it was with Daniel Barenboim as soloist.

Leif, I have always wanted to hear, playing the Nokia jingle if that was what it would take. I’ve missed concerts before for various reasons.

He was excellent. There is something quite delicate about how he plays, and he fades into the music. I enjoyed it very much. I’m sorry in one way to have been sitting behind him up high.

Beethoven 5 is one of my favourite concert pieces – up there with Saint Saens 5 and Rach 2 – and for a while it was a piece I did not think people could play disappointingly. Barenboim was somewhat disappointing the night I heard him play. It made me think that that concerto in particular is maybe a younger man’s game. Andsnes is one of those younger men and he made it count.

Public Pianos – Heuston Station

I haven’t passed through Heuston so much lately so I did not realise the piano had been replaced. The new piano is still an old piano, but in some ways, it is an interesting piano. I’m not sure how old it is, but it’s a Zimmerman upright piano.

Station pianos
Piano in Heuston
Station pianos
Manufacturing sign – Gebr Zimmermann

If I have a few minutes, and the piano is free, I tend to sit down and play it, by way of encouraging the appearance of pianos. So here we go. I had a few minutes

March of the King of Laois, arranged Lynch

I wasn’t very inspired but this is one of the ones I tend to play if I want to check out the piano. To be fair, the piano is reasonably in tune (well done John Murphy), The right pedal seems a bit locked which is a pity.

You can still buy brand new Zimmermann pianos – the brand is owned by C. Bechstein – and for a while there definitely was a dealer somewhere in Dublin. They are nice pianos in my experience.

ABRSM – Grade 5 Theory

Some time ago I looked into the lists for music exams with a view to eventually finishing off the grades. I had done a few few grades when I was a teenager (you can find the books here). I wasn’t in a hurry to go back to the RIAM (I’m never going to get over the Bartok, it seems) but I eventually after some research wound up on the ABRSM website. A couple of things cropped up around this: they had performance grades now (4 pieces instead of 3 and no sight/aural testing, plus they could be recorded and uploaded rather than scheduled).

Additionally, the grade 6 list had one piece that I already owned with a view to learning. However, there is some gamification involved and before you can do Grade 6, you need to do some grade 5 or other. ABRSM focused heavily on Grade 5 Theory although they acknowledged any other Grade 5 (including RIAM as it happens), I have very vague recollections of doing Grade 5 with the RIAM and it being problematic. But I could be discussing Grade 4, I don’t know.

Anyway, I had a look through the ABRSM online exam papers, did all of them and realised I was just shy of Grade 4 so some work was going to be required for Grade 5. Some study. Here’s what I did.

I bought all the material. Right now, that means a bunch of music theory papers, a book and some workbooks. In order of usefulness:

  • First Steps in Music Theory
  • Sample Exam papers
  • A long way back: the workbooks.

If I am honest, the workbooks are not so useful if you are an adult. But the First Steps in Music Theory by Eric Taylor is absolutely essential.

First Steps in Music Theory – Eric Taylor

This is a really useful book.

One of the most useful things you can do then is to work through exam papers.

Sample exam papers

The papers are organised in 7 sections:

  • Rhythm
  • Pitch
  • Keys and Scales
  • Intervals
  • Chords
  • Terms
  • Music in Context

Each section has 10 points except keys and scales which has 15.

I worked through a lot of exam papers: there are several books of them, with a new one issued most of the recent years, there is a test digital exam on the ABRSM’s website and they also have one sample to download and print.

What I did at the time, was work through a paper, and then note the scores I had to identify which parts were my weaker parts, what I had to learn/work on with more effort.

Tracking scores

You can see on one of the tables on the left hand side where I was dropping points on each paper. In theory, I just had to pass the exam so I can move on. But this is an ego thing for me – I didn’t just want to pass, I wanted to get a Distinction. So yeah, I needed to ensure I did not drop any more than 10 points. I did, several times, while going through the papers.

For me, the weaker points were generally, somehow, keys and scales, and intervals. I don’t know why because by ear, they work automatically for me.

In the end, I did the exam in August, and I got the distinction I want. If I was to give advice for anyone else doing this, buy the sample papers + model answers, and buy the First Steps in Music Theory book. And then, work through them. When you’re ready, sign up to to the exam and do it sooner rather than later.

Music of my childhood

RIAM Books of the mid1980s
Music books of my childhood

I was looking for a piece of music I learned to play when I was about 11 or 12 and I knew some of the exam books I used at the time were still at home. I even knew when where they were. The piece of music was a Sonatina and some research around exam organisations didn’t turn up anything when I searched IMSLP. So the piece was in the grade 2 book. It was a Sonatina in G by Thomas Attwood. You can find the music here (youtube sorry). I’m also interested in a Sonatine piece that was on the Grade III book.

Here’s what was in those books

  • Sonatina in G – Attwood
  • A Little Song – Kabelevsky
  • Mazurka – Berkovich
  • Sonatine (2nd movement) Haslinger
  • Dolly’s Complaint – Franck
  • Serenade Andalouse – Poot
  • Sonatine (2nd movement) – Pleyel
  • Pentatonic Tune – Bartók
  • First Loss = Schumann
  • Sonatina – Hook
  • A Little Song – Khachaturian
  • Gay Story – Shostakovich
  • Sonatine – Dussek
  • Bagatelle – Beethoven (A flat)
  • Knight Errant – Furze
  • Sonata in C – Mozart
  • Novelette – Khabalevsky
  • Tuesday’s Child – Bennett

Looking at the list, what strikes me is that Khabalevsky turned up a couple of times.

I’m reasonably sure that I did Grade 5 as well but the book was nowhere to be found, I don’t remember what colour the cover was but I am reasonably sure that Fur Elise was on the list. If anyone from the RIAM from nearly 40 years is still knocking around, I’d be interested to know.

Pianos I have loved

I grew up with an English upright that had, I’m told, been restored before it was bought for my sisters. I decorated it myself when I was about five, using the chimney of my dolls house. It had a handy little nail in it which I could use to make marks on polished wood. I drew a house. I had more faith in my art skills at the age of 5 than I did for the subsequent 40 years. And probably more, let’s be honest.

Anyway. My life was upright pianos for most of my childhood. My teacher had an equally old piano; I think it might even have been older than ours, and to be frank, I don’t remember it having a brand. I think the wood had a polished banded pale gold pattery. That there were special pianos knocking around is something I didn’t really realise until I was 13 or 14 and read a book called A Genius at the Chalet School. The genius in question was an orphaned teenager who happened to be a gifted pianist. Her father had died, leaving her to some cousin or other as her guardian. She didn’t really integrate well with the teenage children of her guardian because she was, not to put too fine a point on it, a gifted pianist, and frankly, obsessed, possibly unhealthily so. She was sent to the Chalet School because they would work with the whole piano thing. Her cousins’ school put a limit of two hours on extra curricular activities, of which they considered music to be one. The Chalet School facilitated four hours of practice and ensured she had a decent teacher which was jolly good of them.

Anyway, all of that tedious detail aside, while her father was still alive, some teacher had told her father it was a good time to get her a good piano. He bought her a Bechstein.

I had never heard of a Bechstein but I assumed it was one of those grand pianos I occasionally saw on television. And now, I dreamed of seeing one, maybe even playing one.

It is far from grand pianos I was raised, to use a common put down in Ireland. Moving swiftly onwards. When I was about 15 years old, I went on a trip to London with my cousins and one of the touristy things we did was go to Harrods. They had expensive pianos. Life changingly expensive pianos. I’m not going to go all communist on you and talk about the evils of capital but in 1988, a half sized grand Bechstein in Harrods cost £24,500. I had just coughed up 14% of my total assets at the time on a copy of Rach II in Boosey & Hawkes so a casual piano purchase was off the table.

But the piano was beautiful. It was truly beautiful and they allowed me to play it. I was a lot worse at playing the piano at the age of 14 than I am at the age 50 (stands to reason), but I was able to understand why Nina, the girl in the book, played a Bechstein. It was truly a good piano.

At some point, I will re-write all this into a piece about children’s books that tangentially feature the playing of piano, the fact that they were written in the context of the British class system but that’s not what this story is about. The truth is, a Bechstein in Harrods was the first grand I ever played. My cousins thought I was nuts to touch something that cost as much as a house in Ireland did at the time. Now that I think of it, houses cost more than a Bechstein these days.

Since then, I’m not sure how many grand pianos I have played. I’ve a good idea of the different builders I have played. I’ve played another few Bechsteins, in piano dealers in Ireland, the UK and I think also Germany. In particular I played one of the pianos that occasionally goes to the Royal Albert Hall. It was a beautiful piano, no doubt about it.

Possibly the most beautiful Bechstein I played was not the concert grand in a dealer in London, or the salon sized grand in Harrods, but a rebuild of a piano in a cabinet which I think date from 1882. It’s such a long time since I have seen it, I’m no longer certain of the date. It was in Pianos Plus in Dublin for a good while, and I played it most times that I went there.

But Bechsteins are not common as they used to be. Absent going to a C Bechstein showroom (I think the nearest to me now is the one in Paris which I skipped on a very hot day when I knew my fingers were not going to cooperate), I don’t get a chance to play them very often unless happenstance.

I’m not afraid of asking if I can play a piano in a piano shop and this means I have played quite a lot of pianos depending on opportunity. I spent a couple of years looking for a Fazioli because I had heard so much about them and in the end, went into a dealer in London (I may be dreaming here but I think the same dealer had the concert Bechstein that I played) and found a concert sized Fazioli, had a good with it, and did not get on with it at all. I was surprised and a little disappointed.

I’d heard so much. I can’t exactly explain what didn’t click. Mostly, it’s a question of feeling, how your body responds to the vibrations of the strings. But it was just one of those things. My local piano shop got a brand new salon sized one at some point, and it was a superlative piano. There was maybe only one or two other pianos I have played that were better than it, one is the 1882 Bechstein I mentioned above. The other was, somewhat unsurprisingly a Steinway D.

The plus point about the smaller piano is there’s an outside possibility you could eventually afford one. I still haven’t. The things I loved about the piano included its resonance – notes took an extraordinarily long time to fade away and you could do very interesting things given how sensitive the hammers were. I haven’t played that piano for a few years because I moved away but it’s definitely one of the best pianos I have ever played. Would I buy it? It depends on a lot of things. I don’t think it would be a safe apartment piano for me because I would never be able to give it full welly, as it were.

The very best piano I have played was a 15 year old Steinway Model D.

Steinway Love
Steinway. Current lords of the grand piano world. I got to play this a few times (honestly, every pianist should make friends with their local piano shops), and I also played a couple of brand new Model Ds in another nearby Steinway dealer. I get kickback from this but this is the only piano model that I would buy sight unseen brand new. I’ve played several and all of them have been excellent pianos. The slightly older one shaded it.

I’ve been told that if you order a Steinway D, you go to Hamburg to choose your own instrument; I dream of doing this. This, of course, is a totally unworkable dream given that NOWHERE I have ever lived even had a room for this.

In addition to the D, I have played a bunch of other Steinway grands, several Model Os of different ages, a couple of Model Bs and one Model C. When the time and money align, the likely battle could be between a Model B and a similarly sized Fazioli. As this is not the budget zone I am operating in at the moment, I need to temper my desires.

Aside from the Steinways, I have played at least one Boston, also salon sized, I think maybe 2m or the closest size. It’s a beautiful piano but this doesn’t totally surprise me because they are built by Kawai,. and I like Kawai pianos.

I have played quite a few Kawais, including one Shigeru Kawai (beautiful piano but not quite for me). I’ve played various ages from brand new to around 30 years old. I’ve played them in Dublin, Belgium and Luxembourg. Mostly, I have expected that when the time comes, I might find myself with a Kawai, again depending on budget and space. For a while, I preferred the older ones; now it will be a question of an individual piano. They are solid and reliable. They have a beautiful touch. I’m saying this because I have also played Young Changs (not for me) and also, I have played a few Yamahas.

The Yamahas have been an interesting mix. By default, I would say that Yamahas and I do not get on very well. I find them to have a very heavy action in general and I struggle to get a soft note out of them. They are physically more demanding to play than almost every other piano I have ever played. That being said, I have played two really beautiful C3s, one in Germany, one in Ireland. The one in Ireland followed a conversation with the piano salesman in Pianos Plus who told me there was one I should nevertheless have a go with; it had just been voiced by their technician and he had done an exceptional job on it. This was true. At that point in time, that Yamaha was as perfect a piano as I had played at that time in my life (but it couldn’t compete for my heart with the 1882 Bechstein).

Other pianos which I have played include a couple of Schimmels (nice pianos and I would love to visit their factory) and two pianos with French names, an Erard and a Pleyel, both of which I think were built in Germany. I wasn’t, to be honest, all that lost about either of them. They looked the part but did not really feel the part. I also have played a couple of Hanlets, one on French about 30 years ago, and one in Belgium about 25 years ago. They were nice pianos but not life changing.

For a long time, the main “big four” piano that I had not actually tried was Bosendorfer. This is another piano that comes with a huge reputation and I have so far only played one. I did not feel at ease with it and I’d like to play some others, maybe a very big one, and a 1.7 or sized one. I don’t have a Bosendorfer dealer near me so I think this will be a while.

Most recent “new” pianos that I have encountered are a couple of Belgian designed pianos. I’ve played a few Doutrelignes; there are two in the airport in Brussels and if they are free and I have time before my flight, I play them. They are lovely pianos; they have a gorgeous sound and from a keyboard action point of view, they are close to the top in my experience. I occasionally meet one when I hire a practice room at my local piano shop. I like them. Part of the deal with playing some Doutrelignes is that you are in a shop that has a Chris Maene straight strung piano, and yes, I have played it. What I will also say is I would like to play it a lot more. It generates beautiful heart moving vibrations. I needed to be alone with it.

The closest I have come to buying a piano is something I hadn’t previously heard of. I came across a prewar Ronisch. I loved it on first play. I can’t tell you why; it’s a prewar piano which means two pedals and ivory keys. It was not a very big piano but it has a beautiful soul. In a way, I think it reminds me of the 1882 Bechstein I mentioned about 90 minutes ago when I started writing this. I did a little research on the brand when I got home and one of the lovely selling points for me, at least, is that Rachmaninoff used to play one.


The piano itself plays beautifully but that little snippet of information, well “chef’s kiss”. His is now in the Rachmaninoff museum at his old summer house. Such a pity it’s not likely I will get to visit it any time soon. I am still reflecting on this.

And by the way, currently my own piano is a Kawai digital CA59. I love it because it allows me to play any time I like. Even if I eventually buy the Ronisch, or a Steinway B, I will keep it for that pleasure.

Piano dealers of note:

  • Kleber Luxembourg
  • Pianos Plus Dublin
  • Maene Brussels
  • Steinway Paris
  • Marcus Hubner, Trier
  • Jacques Samuel Pianos, London
  • Hanlet, Brussels

Sur Mer

Following a Rachmaninoff related mishap with my right hand last week, and a rather stupid insistence on continuing to practice through some discomfort, I am now taking a short break from playing the piano in the hope that sometime next week, I will be back at it with my Gondolalied and Bach Invention Number Tortuous.

In the meantime, I keep finding pieces that I want to learn, random but amazing pieces. This is one.

Sur Mer by Felix Blumenfeld, played by Daniel Blumenthal.

I should probably listen to all of that album, this one track is already amazing. It’s probably far beyond my skills at the moment (given my skill consists of being stuffed by Rach right now…) I hope that Felix’s chords aren’t anywhere near as challengingly big.

Rather annoyingly, I don’t find a published print of it at the moment but it is out of copyright so IMSLP has it. You can find it here. I had a look on Abebooks for it and found one seller in Germany but the quoted price was over 60 dollars. I don’t pay that for brand new sheet music books and I’m not sure I want this one at that price when I won’t be starting it for a good while and have some other things to do [I’m wondering if it is acceptable for Grade 8 but since I can’t find a published print I think I will struggle to use it].

The opening bars put me in mind of a great naval ship (sailing, 19th century) racing across the ocean, with the occasional encounter with someone else’s great naval ship. I love those opening bars, those arpeggios.


When I was doing some research around the prelude in C major from the first Well Tempered Clavier, I came across a reference to Anna Magdalena’s Notebook. It’s a collection of music which JS Bach put together for his wife and it includes the prelude in C major.

I liked the idea, and also I own some of these things:

More baby sketchbookd
They are around A6 sized. Small. Anyway.

There are lots of clips of pieces of music which I like – parts of Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano concerto, for example, elements of the piano parts of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (I really want to include mention of the piano because it isn’t merely a backdrop to the stringed instrument here) and there is an extraordinary opening for one of the Schuman violin sonatas which I came across in a very old clip of Helene Grimaud:

A very young Helene Grimaud working on Schumann

I like the idea of a notebook full of extracts I like, and might even try to learn if they don’t try to injure me (looking at you, Sergey). But I thought the A6 notebooks were a little too small for that (I fancy being the type of person who has a notebook to sketch out compositional ideas while waiting for dinner to be served which is why I have the A6 notebooks). So I got this.

Music sketchbook A4
A4 Henle Notes sketchbook for music.

Sheet music acquisitions

Latest purchases
More Brahms and lots more Rachmaninoff

I wanted to get some plastic covers for my Henle music that I carry to acoustic piano practice, and also, I wanted non-tearable manuscript notebooks.

On the sheet music, every time I buy some, I think that’s the end. Most of the Rachmaninoff that I own is published by Boosey & Hawkes and I couldn’t get everything I wanted in London a couple of months ago. I was also experimenting with Prelude in G minor the other day (perhaps not the greatest idea) and I realised I didn’t much like the quality of the paper I was working from. I never thought I was so picky. I could see Henle had an edition of it so I decided I wanted that. I’ve been increasingly. Elegie and chunks of Etudes Tableaux are on my to be learned at some point in the future when I don’t hurt myself trying to do this, and I wanted the 117 intermezzi as well. I have one or two of them in the Brahms piano book (I should probably do some reviews. Score happy me.

Of course I should do this electronically, space and all that.