Sheet Music Review
Over recent months, esteemed and enterprising German music publishers Breitkopf & Hārtel have unleashed a succession of interesting new piano sheet music publications, and in this group review I’m going to introduce you to the whole lot:
- Ulrich Mahlert (editor): Spielbuch für Klavier
- Friedrich Grossnick: More Catchy Tunes
- Luis Zett: Busy Lizzy & Lazy Daisy
- Alexey Shor: Childhood Memories
- Martin Reich: Primo & Secondo (4 hands)
- Manfred Schmitz: Jazz Parnass (6 hands)
- Jairo Geronymo: 4 Prima Vistas (2 pianos, 4 hands)
Some General Observations
Before going further, there’s a few product issues I generally cover in reviews which in this case apply to all seven publications.
Firstly, these Breitkopf publications are “luxury” items, wonderfully produced, with beautifully engraved and well-spaced notation, top-notch print quality, and all presented (with the exception of the ‘Spielbuch’) on cream paper.
They are bilingual, with titles and text appearing in German and English. There are some variations in prominence however – ‘More Catchy Tunes’ and ‘Busy Lizzy’ both give priority to English, while the ‘Spielbuch for Klavier’ favours German. ‘Jazz Parnass’ has a front cover in German but piece titles just in English. I don’t think this matters – the books are wonderfully presented and the music and imagery will appeal to players regardless of language.
It’s worth noting that with the recent fall in the pound, the exchange rate doesn’t favour UK purchasers – these books are a bit expensive. Teachers may be keen to acquire them as studio resources, but may want to be careful before sending pupils off to purchase a selection of them!
For each of the seven publications I have included links to the Breitkopf site, where you can access more information, and in some cases sample pages and recordings.
Spielbuch für Klavier (Piano Album)
Early in my teaching career, my sister Alison introduced me to the delights of The Keyboard Crocodile, a superb collection of beginner to elementary pieces which had proved a big hit with the children in her school. And sure enough, my own students lapped it up, making rapid progress in the process.
Readers who have met the Keyboard Crocodile will no doubt have been drawn into this review by the image of him riding a grand piano which graces the cover of the new ’Spielbuch for Klavier’ (Piano Album), EB 8914. In this new publication, the croc is joined by other “heroes” of Breitkopf’s ’Pädagogik’ series, “Tio the Little Keyboard Man” and “Little Monster”. According to the publishers,
“Together they accompany piano students on their first steps in piano playing and lead them to first repertoire pieces by composers such as Mozart, Bach and Czerny. “
Certainly these colourful characters make their presence felt, with small but eye-catching pictures of them appearing throughout (and especially in the first half of the publication). But what of the music?
The ’Spielbuch’ comprises 72 solo pieces and concludes with 8 duets, all taken from previous publications in the Pädagogik series.
The solo pieces start with ’The Top’, which contains just two notes in each hand and lasts for a mere four bars. Several of the earliest pieces in the book could be taught in a very first piano lesson. The first 20 pieces are all composed by in-house educational composer Kerstin Strecke. They are followed by several pieces by Karin Daxböck. However, by the mid-point of the book the pieces include such as Bach’s famous ’Minuet in G’ and Bartók’s ’Song of the Vagabond’ (No.7 from ’For Children volume 3).
The second half of the book includes such stalwarts as Batschinaskaja’s ‘The Old Cuckoo Clock’, Bach’s ‘Musette’ in D, Gurlitt’s ‘Night Journey’ and Schumann’s ‘Soldier’s March’. These are joined by some more jazzy compositions by Manfred Schmitz.
Overall, in UK terms the range here is from complete beginner to approaching Grade 2. I am not sure that the collection could be used as a method book in its own right, but think it would work brilliantly as a supplementary collection of pieces to be used alongside a student’s regular tutor.
As such, it would be difficult not to give ’Spielbuch für Klavier’ the highest of recommendations. It offers a superb and varied collection of imaginative pieces, wonderfully presented, and will undoubtedly enrich the musical development of any child.
Friedrich Grossnick: More Catchy Tunes
Friedrich Grossnick’s ’Catchy Tunes’ has been one of Breitkopf’s recent success stories, so it’s good to see Grossnick back with a second volume, ’More Catchy Tunes’.
Here we have 19 new compositions in a range of popular styles. Aimed at “easy to intermediate” level (around Grade 3-5), they are a little harder than the pieces in the previous volume, making this an ideal follow on for those hooked on Grossnick’s style.
Several of the pieces in the collection recall pieces and songs that students might be familiar with, but all retain sufficient originality to stay fresh in the process. I particularly enjoyed the more lyrical numbers – ’Quiet your mind’, ’Song of the heart’ and the imaginative ’Forever and Ever’. Elsewhere, ‘Games’ recalls 50s Rock ’n’ Roll in a piece where the pattern from each hand can be reversed, opening up an interesting creative opportunity for the player to explore.
According to the composer,
“The pieces aim to inspire piano students and hobby pianists to enjoy playing piano – more than anything else the pieces should be fun to play. For sure, they can’t be mastered without some practising, but everything is made clear so that you can understand how – with a bit of practising you can easily master all the pieces….
“You’ll learn playfully, and then play knowingly.”
Interestingly, jazz chord symbols are included above the RH part throughout the collection. These could prove useful to those keen to analyse the pieces and develop their understanding of harmony, but might also be used to create alternative versions of the pieces, add keyboard backings, or for the teacher to improvise duet parts. The chord symbols take no prisoners however – most bars include two or more chords, and players might be confused by advanced jazz chords such as Am6/C, Cmaj7/13 and D9b/11.
Quite how infectious you find the tunes themselves will be subjective, and you can make up your own mind: MP3 solo recordings of the whole collection are available as a free download on the Breitkopf website here.
Personally I suspect that ’More Catchy Tunes’ will be another solid success for Breitkopf, and am happy to give it a warm recommendation.
Luis Zett: Busy Lizzy & Lazy Daisy
Composer Luis Zett tells us that the 16 compositions that make up ’Busy Lizzy & Lazy Daisy’ were written to wile away hours of boredom as he awaited news about whether another collection would be accepted by the publishers. It is perhaps the more remarkable, then, that these pieces are characterised by the same good-natured humour and ironic neo-classicism that ran through his highly enjoyable duet book ‘Across Europe’, which I previously reviewed here.
As one might expect, the pieces throughout the collection (again for intermediate level, perhaps this time Grade 4-6) are predominantly gentle in nature, with titles such as ’Countless Snowdrops’, ’Cornflowers Swaying in a Summer Breeze’, and ’Droopy Tulips’.
And yet this is far from a one-dimensional affair. The title piece contrasts an enjoyable toccata portraying Busy Lizzy with a swaying 6/8 characterisation of Lazy Daisy. ’Black Hollyhock’ employs psychological maturity to full effect in its revelation that all is not what it may seem. And as for ’A Song for – whom?’ … well, I won’t spoil the punchline for you!
Overall, ’Busy Lizzy & Lazy Daisy’ is not so easy to pigeon-hole as I initially suspected it might be. Sadly there aren’t recordings for this publication, but if you are already intrigued and looking for fresh material in the Grade 5 area, I certainly encourage you to have a look.
Personally, I found myself somewhat unexpectedly charmed!
Alexey Shor: Childhood Memories
If the pieces in ’Childhood Memories’ offer an authentic depiction of Maltese-American composer Alexey Shor’s own childhood, we can deduce that his early years were fairly unremarkable.
The 14 short pieces that make up the Suite follow the protagonist’s development from young child playing in a sandpit to teenager experiencing his first love, mostly via generic experiences portrayed in pieces with titles such as ’Last Days of Summer’, ’Hourglass’ and the neo-baroque ’Air’.
Shor’s compositional style here is tonal, and full of textural interest. Finding an embedded French cryptogram encoding in ’Hidden Message’ is perhaps less surprising when we learn that the composer has a PhD in mathematics, and perhaps – like the collection’s title – recalls Schumann.
The pieces are suitable at around Grades 5-7 level. The effectively written pianistic figurations work well, but some require larger hands. Fingering is not included, but left to the player’s discretion.
Martin Reich: Primo & Secondo
Another new entry to the Breitkopf Pädagogik collection, Martin Reich’s ’Primo & Secondo’ is as the title suggests a new duet collection, which offers “20 Balanced Arrangements for Piano Duet”. According to Martin:
“The four-hand arrangements in this volume are designed in such a way that both parts can be played by piano students in their first year of tuition.”
Perhaps Martin’s students progress rather faster than mine. It’s certainly the case that the early pieces here – which include arrangements of Frère Jacques, Yankee Doodle, Oh, When the Saints go Marchin’ in and the Ode to Joy – would work well with relative beginners, but later pieces in the book are far harder, offering plenty of challenge for intermediate players by the time we reach In the Hall of the Mountain King, Liebestraum No.3, the theme from ’Rhapsody in Blue’ and E flat major Maple Leaf Rag.
As such, I think that this would actually make an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable collection of duets which players might return to over a more extended time frame.
The arrangements are all tastefully done, and ensure that there is plenty of melodic interest for both players. The two parts are presented in full score, rather than on facing pages as is more common.
There is ample fingering, and to the rear of the volume can be found a five-page section of “Remarks on the Pieces”, which nicely rounds off an excellent publication. Recommended!
Manfred Schmitz: Jazz Parnass
Manfred Schmitz has been one of Breitkopf’s most popular composers, combining his accessible writing with a wealth of jazz education knowledge. Sadly he passed away in 2014, and this publication completes his brilliant range of books, which are well worth exploring.
’Jazz Parnass’ comprises 16 pieces written for one piano, six hands. It includes new arrangements of some pieces from previous books in the series, as well as brand new compositions. According to Manfred:
“Playing six hand piano opens up great opportunities, both tonal and in terms of playing technique. The pianistic sound spectrum with its variety of expressions and tonal nuances can now be explored with six hands in a most interesting way. Nearly orchestral and also sophisticated playing variants take you on a fascinating journey of discovery.”
These arrangements are indeed sophisticated, and I am really impressed with the attention given to ensuring all the parts are worthwhile and enjoyable to play. In terms of timbre, the lower two players generally inhabit the world of a typical piano duo, while the third player adds a descant at the top end of the piano. This all allows for an overall texture that isn’t too muddied at the lower end, and adds sparkle to the pieces, which are themselves a true delight.
The book is organised so that alternate pages fold out, allowing all three parts to be printed effectively alongside each other.
It would undoubtedly be a rewarding investment for players at around Grades 4-6 level who are able to form a suitable trio, and teachers may want to consider which students they might allocate to such an endeavour!
Generously, two of the pieces are also available for free download on the Breitkopf site, so you can try them out with your trio first!
Jairo Geronymo: 4 Prima Vistas
Rounding off this group review we have ’4 Prima Vistas’ (4 Winners), which is helpfully subtitled “Sight-Reading for 4 single hands at 2 pianos”, identifying the particular niche which the publication has been created to fill.
A classy cardboard wallet contains two identical copies of the 56-page book – one copy for each piano.
There are 16 pieces in the collection, which offers arrangements of popular piano and orchestral classics such as The Hunt from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen and Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance from The Nutcracker. Some of the arrangements seem to me a little contrived, but they at least convey the general idea of the pieces they are derived from, and offer an interesting way to encounter this music.
The four parts, two per piano, are identified using the trump signs from a deck of cards – heart, diamond, club and spade.
Project editor Sigrid Naumann writes in the introduction that:
“They are intended for four players at two pianos, so that every player has to read only one part. This way, students can already engage in ensemble playing after a short period of instrumental teaching…”
Personally, I think that once again players will need to have been learning for some years before they could easily sight-read this material and focus on the ensemble element. As with Jazz Parnass however, this would be great fun to use in the studio that is suitably equipped and has well-matched students.
Alternatively, I think this would be a great resource to use at an informal piano get-together, adult meet-up or short workshop session.
Looking at these resources as a whole, it is encouraging to see that Breitkopf are continuing to bring to market such a variety of unique and well-considered resources. The only real question for readers is, which to buy first?
And I hope that my review here will prove useful to you in making that decision!