Sheet Music Review
Regular readers will know that I have huge admiration for the independent up-coming publisher Editions Musica Ferrum, whose publications consistently bring high-end quality and creative originality.
In recent months EMF have been adding to their range of publications suitable for intermediate, and younger players, building on the success of their best-selling Cool Beans series by Ben Crosland, and EMF founder Nikolas Sideris’s outstanding Fairyland in Treble. Among the most recent releases, I’m going to take a look at four real gems:
- Alison Mathews: Treasure Trove
- Simon Hester: Megabytes I: The Private Life of Bugs
- Barbara Arens: All Beautiful & Splendid Things
- Bonislava Taneva: Sound Stories
These are all available for immediate purchase worldwide, directly from the publisher’s website here.
Alison Mathews is a piano teacher from Surrey UK, and although hers may be a new name to some readers, she will be known to others for her piano music formerly published by EVC Music, and as co-author of the recent collection Capturing the Spirit of Christmas.
Based on this new collection of 17 solo piano pieces, it is clear that Alison is an effective and imaginative composer of music for elementary to intermediate players. Introducing the publication she writes:
“I chose the title Treasure Trove as the word trove means a collection of valuable or delightful things. What better way to describe a group of pieces written about such captivating items such as precious and semiprecious gemstones?”
In a crowded market it makes a lot of sense to differentiate a new anthology with a core concept, and the theme of gemstones indeed proves effective here. Alison explains that gemstones can be associated with exotic journeys around the world, with geological development over millions of years, and with different cultures and layers of meaning. She also cites the many myths and beliefs surrounding gemstones,
“…giving them a special significance in societies, whether it is religious, medicinal or magical.”
The core idea here, then, allows considerable scope for the imagination, both of the composer and the player, and the collection certainly taps into this with a palpable verve.
The pieces are around ABRSM Grade 3 standard, and written with a direct musical language that younger players will easily relate to – but which will also find appeal with adult learners at this level, who I am sure will equally find the imagery of the gemstones an enjoyable impetus for learning the pieces.
Here’s a list of the titles, which in itself suggest the wide range that the book encapsulates:
- The River Pearl
- Flaming Sapphire
- The Amethyst Crystal
- Persian Turquoise
- Diamond Bright
- The Obsidian Obelisk
- A Slice of Agate
- Buried Rubies
- The Peridot Meteorite
- An Iridescent Opal
- Tigers Eye
- Oriental Jade
- Mournful Jet
- Emerald Eyes
- Black Onyx
- Shimmering Moonstone
- Trapped in Amber
Here’s the composer performing one of the pieces, Shimmering Moonstones, which gives a good idea of her gift for evocative writing within an easy-to-play piece:
Most of the pieces are just one page long. I personally think the book could have benefitted from simple illustrations of the sort found in the Cool Beans series, and while there is a short passage about each piece and its associated gemstone at the start of the book, these comments could perhaps have been integrated with the pieces, with the whole affair given a slightly more spacious presentation. But these minor quibbles surely won’t detract from the pleasure intermediate piano players will find when exploring this brilliant collection.
For the player between Grade 3-4, the pieces here provide well-written contemporary material that will delight at the same time as consolidating progress and inspiring musicianship. And I very much hope that exam boards will take a look, as there’s plenty of material here that could comfortably find a place in future syllabi.
Treasure Trove is truly a gem!
Megabytes 1: The Private Life of Bugs
Simon Hester is a prolific composer whose works include numerous chamber and orchestral pieces as well as music for the stage.
Simon has written extensively for solo piano too, and I am hoping that many more of his excellent works will be published by EMF in the coming months. That Simon is himself a fine pianist, with a deep empathy for the instrument and its possibilities, is clear in all his piano writing, and not least in the ten character pieces which make up Megabytes I: The Private Life of Bugs.
The collection would suit a player at around Grade 5 level, and like Treasure Trove would make an ideal anthology to dip into between grades. The music is often atonal, but never stark – the dominant characteristic here is the imaginative impressionism of music which ranges in mood from haunting evocation to mischievous whimsy.
The Private Life of Bugs comprises:
- On the Trail of the Snail
- Wednesday Night at the Flea Circus
- Flutterance – The Butterfly
- When Wasps Dance
- Moths (Nocturne)
- Work, March, Work, March – The Ants
- Dreaming of Dragonflies
- Beware, Scorpion
- Annoyance – The Fly
- Beetling About
These pieces are quirky and characterful, brimming with good-natured humour, and show their composer to be absolutely at the top of his game, both in terms of his understanding of the instrument, and through the outstanding quality of musical imagination.
Each of the pieces is accompanied by a cartoon illustration by Piero Pierini – most of which brought a smile to my face, and a couple of which made me laugh aloud. Piero is also responsible for the ravishing cover illustration which is sure to make Megabytes I stand out in any collection.
It is surely no exaggeration to insist that these pieces construct a hugely impressive bridge between the parallel worlds of entertainment and art, and for any teacher interested in introducing students to accessible contemporary classical music – or any player with sufficiently adventurous taste – I simply can’t think of a better collection to explore.
Listen for yourself – here’s Simon’s own recordings of the full collection (but note, the opening jazz isn’t from Megabytes I)
An absolutely brilliant collection – strongly recommended!
All Beautiful & Splendid Things
The ever-prolific Barbara Arens’ latest collection for solo piano, All Beautiful & Splendid Things carries the quirky subtitle 12+1 Songs for Piano Solo on Poems by Women. The “12+1” formula recalls Barbara’s earlier collection Rendezvous with Midnight, which I reviewed here last year, as does the inclusion of poetry as a stimulus to creativity and interpretation.
As the composer explains in her Foreword:
“Poetry and Music – what an exciting combination! The two have of course, been merged in vocal forms from Opera to Art Song. Or in a purely pianistic way, we have Brahms prefixing his Liebeslieder Waltzer and his first Ballad with poems. The poems serve to set the scene, giving emotional depth to the performance…
“But I believe the following pieces, which I will call Songs for Piano are unique in that the poetry has been set to music word for word.”
The women’s voices here are often hurt, alone, bitten by a cold wind (both metaphorical and in some cases literal). But the poems are beautifully nuanced, and include a variety of moods – by turns dreamy, nostalgic, melancholy, optimistic.
Here is the complete list of the poems that Barbara’s songs are based on:
- This is the Land the Sunset Washes by Emily Dickinson
- I have sown my Love so Wide by Sara Teasdale
- Winter Night by Sara Teasdale
- Though Far I Roam by Anne Brontë
- Go, Sit upon the Lofty Hill by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- No Escape by Barbara Arens
- Where Sunless Rivers Weep by Christina Rossetti
- Wild Wind on the Mountain Heath by Anne Brontë
- A Minuet of Mozart’s by Sara Teasdale
- Weeping Willow by Christina Rossetti
- Life has Loveliness to Sell by Sara Teasdale
- Sweetest Hours by Barbara Arens
- When shall We Three Meet Again by The Weird Sisters, aka Wm. Shakespeare
Having set the poems word for word, Barbara notes of the collection:
It CAN be sung – but only if that adds to your enjoyment! … if you DO sing along, feel free to choose whatever range suits you best octaving as you please.”
That is certainly an important proviso, as the songs here would require a large vocal range, specifically from the G below middle C right up to top C, two and a half octaves higher. Even among trained singers, few will be able to comfortably navigate this range.
The presentation on the page offers a two-stave piano arrangement with lyrics added, sometimes between staves and sometimes below the left hand stave, depending on where the main melody is to be found. Had the voice part been given a separate stave, with the music set for vocal and piano, it would have been easier to follow the melody; as it is, the lyrics make it clear that the tune to be sung is sometimes within the inner voices.
Barbara explains that the pieces are equally suitable for playing as piano solos, without voice:
“I find it enriching, while playing, to read the poetry, which in turn encourages me to play with more feeling – and thus with more pleasure!”
This is a fabulous sentiment, and let there be no doubt that the music and words suit each other marvellously here.
There is a confidential intimacy to many of these songs, perhaps more so that in any of Barbara’s previous collections, and it’s fascinating to see this other side to her writing. Although All Beautiful & Splendid Things may prove to have a rather niche appeal, it is no less a great addition to the catalogue.
Here’s a video of Barbara performing one of the most lovely pieces in the collection:
Another recent publication from Editions Musica Ferrum which mustn’t be overlooked, Sound Stories is a collection of 24 original pieces for solo piano by Bulgarian composer Bonislava Taneva.
According to the publisher:
“Each work serves a specific purpose in the educational process of the student, while the music itself bursts with romantism, creativity, fun, and easy to grasp a little more advanced concepts (irregular time signatures, silently depressed notes, etc).”
Taneva’s pieces speak with a direct, folk-inspired musical language. They are technically adventurous, with overlapping hand formations, legato chord changes, finger-substitutions, and plenty of other challenges.
At the same time the imagery invoked is well suited to younger players. and will particularly appeal to pre-teens who are progressing between ABRSM Grades 2-5 level.
Here’s the full list of piece titles:
- A rising melody
- Blind Man’s Bluff
- Tin Soldiers
- A singing river
- Balloons in the air
- A riddle
- Slow Waltz
- An Indian Game
- The leapfrog
- The Broken Telephone
- Fast and loose
- A game on 5/8
- A game of staccato
- The game is over
- Slow menuet
- The clowns
- The acrobats
- Just a tongue-twister
- A fairytale
- The old clock
- In Bulgarian rhythms
Again, this list gives a good indication of the range of moods here, all conveyed in an easy (but traditionally rooted) musical language that is memorable and will quickly appeal.
Here’s a short preview which includes four of the works in the collection:
I really enjoyed the pieces on offer here – it is hugely appealing and seems to me a contemporary response to the children’s pieces of Béla Bartók.
Between them, these fresh new volumes provide a rich feast for players of around Grade 2-6 level, with something for all tastes.
Teachers looking for a fresh injection of fabulous and imaginative new material to use with pupils of all ages, and within this ability range, would do well to stock up on a complete set of the four books.
And hopefully from this review you will have a sufficient flavour of each to make up your own mind about which will best suit your needs.