Phrasing of variations

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Phrasing of variations

Postby OldTomsRant » Mon Nov 21, 2011 11:06 pm

Some time ago Francis Wood kindly sent me the following article from the Times, reviewing a Clough recital in London:
http://chrisormston.com/Documents/Cloug ... .03.28.pdf
Looking beyond the patronising tone of the piece, the comment about Clough's phrasing stood out.

When I started competing at Open level in the late 1970s, Peacock-style variations were popular with most participants, and the ethos seemed to be to play as quickly and cleanly as possible, at a uniform speed governed by how fast one could play the most difficult variation. Over time I've come to realise that this would produce technically-impressive performances at the expense of musicality. Given the above references to Clough's phrasing, and much earlier descriptions of Peacock's 'lilts and pauses', I now think that the old players may have taken liberties with tempo while playing variation sets, maybe keeping key anchor points in the tune to a set tempo. Coincidentally, before Francis had sent me the Times article, I tried this approach when recording 'O little Wat Ye Wha's Coming' on my solo CD, and listening back a few years later I'm inclined to think that this was maybe how variations were phrased in the past. Maybe we'll never know!

Any thoughts?

Chris
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby Julia Say » Tue Nov 22, 2011 9:22 am

I have two pages of very scrappy notes from talking to Tommy Breckons about Clough and his teaching. I remember him saying that Clough would use extensive rubato within each strain, but I see that I have written "make each strain very clear as to where it started and finished".

He also said that Tom would treat each strain as a "question and answer" in terms of phrasing. So the question would be up to the 4th bar - which in a lot of the sets doesn't change a lot as it goes through, and with the question mark (if you like) just before the lead note (if there is one) to the following phrase of 4 bars, which was the answer. The rubato would be within those individual phrases

Tom B was also told not to copy the details of Clough's style. He was taught competition playing "which is not a concert - a quite different style is required". For a concert or other performance each player was expected to take what they had learnt and develop their own style. But NOT till they'd proved themselves competent.

So maybe (this is me speculating, now) those players of the 70s were doing exactly what Clough would have wanted - showing their technical mastery of the instrument before being "set free" as competent pipers, judged so by their peers, to develop and add to the tradition.

Julia (a qualified, barely competent piper)
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby OldTomsRant » Tue Nov 22, 2011 2:29 pm

Maybe those 70s players were doing what Clough would have wanted, but not consciously. Those were the early days of a mini Peacock revival. I think people were still exploring that newly-rediscovered music while developing the chanter skills to perform it. Most of those performers have since drifted away from playing Peacock, so the next step - individual interpretation of the music - didn't happen at that time. I also think there's a growing culture of enquiry in piping nowadays, that perhaps wasn't as developed in the 70s.
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby Francis Wood » Tue Nov 22, 2011 3:55 pm

The Times critic writing in 1928 had probably never heard Northumbrian small-pipes or their variations repertoire. What was performed that day clearly delighted him and that audience.

It's interesting that the comparison he chooses is with Pablo Casals, the foremost cellist of his time and, as some (including me) would claim, of all time. Casals was the first to perform and record the Cello Suites of Bach, and many movements in those pieces are written as an intelligent and beautiful working and reworking of material - not as quite as variations though the writing often has something in common with that principle. Casals seems to me to have a deep awareness of traditional music, and as a fervent Catalan nationalist he would certainly have had a powerful respect for it.

If the critic's remark was anything more serious than a casual comparison, Casals' playing is worth hearing in this context. The Bach recordings are on Spotify.

Francis
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby OldTomsRant » Tue Nov 22, 2011 4:12 pm

There are some clips of Casals playing Bach on YouTube too - these illustrate the comments about phrasing perfectly, and it's easy to see how variations might be approached in the same manner.
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby John Gibbons » Tue Nov 22, 2011 9:17 pm

It's all baroque music, though monodic divisions upon a simple 2-note (unstated) ground are a rather less sophisticated form than some things that Sebastian got up to.
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby OldTomsRant » Tue Nov 22, 2011 10:30 pm

Quite, John. I suppose that Bach, not having drones, had to find pleasure in other ways :D
It's those simple, earthy patterns that draw me to the older tunes. The possibilities for phrasing are there regardless of the perceived restrictions of the pipes, indeed there's a certain skill in getting the most out of that chord/dischord pattern.
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby John Gibbons » Wed Nov 23, 2011 11:00 pm

Some of his string (eg in one movement- I've forgotten which - of one of the Cello Suites) and keyboard writing does imitate drones, so he wasn't entirely uncultured!
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Re: Phrasing of variations

Postby Francis Wood » Fri Nov 25, 2011 11:02 am

Quite a common feature of the time. Rameau too.

Francis
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