As a reviewer I get to discover a surprising amount of great new pedagogic music, but it’s predominantly at the beginner to intermediate level. So it is particularly exciting when something arrives that is more challenging, and yet just as appealing.
Birds: Études-Tableaux is a collection of six pieces by Andrew Higgins, published by EVC Music Publications, and subtitled modern virtuoso studies.
If you’ll pardon the pun, it perfectly fits the bill! Do read on for further twittering about these wonderful pieces …
Andrew Higgins is an English composer born in 1960. After studying the piano at the London College of Music, he graduated from the University of Surrey, specialising in Composition and Performance with musicology.
Andrew spent 15 formative years touring the world as a session musician and music producer in the 1980s and, with several albums behind him at that point, decided to devote more time to composition and to teaching the piano.
Andrew now works extensively with Alfred Publishing in the UK and Europe, promoting their ideals of musicianship through workshops and lectures, and meeting with teachers, performers and their students to discuss piano teaching techniques.
Many teachers have remarked on the freedom and flexibility in his approach to music and, while Andrew considers improvisation and composition an intrinsic aspect of making music in the twenty-first century, this is always underpinned by a clear emphasis on sound technique and musicality.
Birds: Études-Tableaux is a rather perfect embodiment of these combined ideals – a cycle of pieces which are rich in imagination while underpinned by solid pedagogic value. Andrew explains:
“I watched birds from windows all over the world. I saw them hover, glide, strut, waddle and soar; and the rhythm and sound of each of these movements invited musical interpretation. But, at the same time, I wanted to catch something of the character and diversity of these unique creatures; the humour, coquettishness, grandeur and nobility, and their seemingly endless chatter.
In some senses the music came easily, I simply plucked it from the sky, but writing it down took a little longer. And, in the end, what matters is how near or far the music gets to capturing these marvels of creation as they swoop and dive and flutter, for the most part completely unnoticed, through our everyday lives.”
Like all EVC Music Publications, Birds: Études-Tableaux is a straight-forward affair with little preamble. When the stork delivered it, however, I did notice a couple of things.
Since the last EVC Music publication I received, the publisher’s house style has moved to a more standard score size, rather than A4. The overall look and feel of the publication is cleaner too, and in my opinion, much improved by the changes. And the book’s cover is nicely understated, with imagery that I feel is both contemporary and classy:
Nesting securely within, the notation is nicely spaced and clearly engraved. Ample (but not excessive) fingering is provided, providing the player with all that is needed for the music to quickly take flight.
Although there is no additional text, there are concise, imaginative and very well-written notes about each piece by the composer, provided on the rear cover. And it’s with the added benefit of these insights that the piece really soar …
First up is Penguins, which is a virtuoso scherzo somewhat reminiscent of Prokofiev. The two hands overlap and dovetail, playing scale, arpeggio and chord patterns in separate keys.
Andrew gives a lovely rationale for this:
“Their bodies so ill-fitted for land and yet so graceful in water; they lead a double life; a polytonal life of joie de vivre and exuberance on the one hand, and clownish clumsiness on the other. What fun!”
I was surprised to discover a legato chromatic scale with hands positioned just a semitone apart in this piece – isn’t it fun to learn a new trick! With a very slightly non-legato touch this works a treat, nicely conveying the chatter of the penguins, perhaps as they descend to catch a fish!
A Wise Old Owl is a slower, but equally evocative piece. It is suitable for a slightly less advanced player (perhaps Grade 5) but requires LH stretches of a ninth which cannot easily be avoided, so it’s perhaps a piece best suited to those with a larger wing-span.
I found The Swan to be more obviously a study than the previous two pieces, but it is no less attractive. Here the focus is on 3 against 2 rhythms, triplets appearing in the RH, against duplets in the LH, and the steady transition from one chord to the next combines lyricism with grace.
Albatross is my personal favourite from the set – a piece which combines a resonant LH pedal bass with a soaring melody in the RH and inner harmonies that wouldn’t seem out of place in a contemporary jazz context. Again, large hands are an advantage here.
Hummingbird is – as one might expect – more particularly flighty, and one of the most challenging studies of the collection, fluttering by at an impressive tempo. A very useful and imaginative approach to developing dexterity with tonal control.
Lovebirds (Cuckoo to you!) completes this highly imaginative collection. Above the LH ostinato, the RH takes wing for a series of characterful arcs that could have been improvised, and indeed the piece could well be used as the basis for further experimentation.
Worth a flutter
Taken as a whole, Birds: Études-Tableaux is a genuinely delightful publication. I am especially impressed that each of these attractive pieces includes such excellent underlying pedagogy. How irresistible for teacher and student alike!
In golfing terms, Birds: Études-Tableaux scores a birdie, exceeding preconceptions to confirm itself as one of this year’s essential purchases. Don’t miss it!
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