Barbara Arens: Piano Misterioso

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In my review of Barbara Arens’ ’21 Amazingly Easy Pieces’ last month I concluded:

“The partnership between composer and publisher has clearly worked brilliantly here, and the resulting book is quite simply a delight. Let’s hope for more to come!”

I’m therefore particularly happy to be reviewing the follow up ‘Piano Misterioso’, especially as all the praise offered in my previous review equally applies here. It is clear that publishers Breitkopf & Härtel have again given their full professional attention to editorial detail, beautifully presenting Barbara’s latest pieces with class and distinction.

The Concept

According to the publisher :

Barbara Arens gives us mysterious, eerie, dark, exotic pieces for the piano. As in Film music, atmospheric pictures and moods are conjured up. We wander through monastic ruins by moonlight (Ruinae gothicae) or are alone at the piano at 2:30 a.m. – with only one candle lit (Cogita nocturna). Scotland, Ireland, St. Petersburg, Arabia – we have many backdrops for the “Cinema in our Heads”. Like the other piano works of Barbara Arens, these 28 pieces are surprisingly easy to play, allowing pianists of all ages to concentrate completely on expression.”

The concept for this new collection is further explained by Barbara in her Preface :

“I admit it – I love “dark” music. The more minor, the better!
When taught the difference between major and minor we’re told that minor sounds sad. But does the classic James Bond theme (in E minor) sound sad? Or the soundtrack to “Pirates of the Caribbean” (D minor)? Exciting, cool, bursting with energy – anything but sad! Minor can be sad – but it can also be angry or introspective or mysterious.
So that’s what we have here: 28 dark and mysterious pieces in minor keys – made even more mysterious by their Latin titles!”

The Compositions

Perhaps it was ill-advised of me to play through all 28 of these “dark” pieces in a single sitting, especially as I was already having a bad day. By the time I had finished, Mrs. Eales, sensing that something might be amiss, had fetched my favourite slippers and poured me a glass of wine!

That said, perhaps the biggest surprise of this collection is actually the variety contained within it. Barbara has taken a single theme – mystery – and examined it from every angle imaginable, taking us on a musical journey that stretches from Russian chant to blues, and from contemporary minimalism to Argentinian tango.

For all this variety, the pieces are written in a contemporary style, and in a musical language players will readily relate to. Inevitably there are some pieces which I found more successful than others – but such things are always subjective, and each player will find their favourites.

Overall this collection left me even more enthralled than the previous one. And there is plenty here for my students to enjoy in the coming months.

One of the notable differences between ‘Piano misterioso’ and the aforementioned ’21 Amazingly Easy Pieces’ is that, while the former used abstract titles, the latter are more self-explanatory in terms of their inspiration and intended effect. The imagination of the player is further stirred by the footnotes that appear beneath each piece, which translate the Latin titles, often nicely expanding on them with evocative vignettes.

Barbara’s writing for the piano is consistently wonderful throughout this collection, exploring sonorities, colours and registrations that are generally less frequented in music written for intermediate players. It is clear she has a deep affinity with the  instrument,  as is borne out by her impressive career. And she achieves this all within the framework of music that is consciously easy to play. In short, she makes music that sounds difficult and impressive relatively accessible, helping players build confidence and focus on expression.

As with the ’21 Amazingly Easy Pieces’, the music engraving and presentation is top notch, as one would expect from such an established classical publisher. Fingering is well-considered and ample; although it is not as exhaustive as it was in the previous book, there is certainly sufficient that the teenage and adult players most likely to be drawn to this collection will find most of the pieces easy enough to learn independently.

Providing further support, a full set of MP3 recordings can be downloaded from the Breitkopf website, streamed (at the time of writing) on SoundCloud – and this time you can also watch the whole collection performed in this YouTube demonstration playlist:

In short, I have absolutely no reservations in recommending this thoroughly enjoyable and expressive collection.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.