The indomitable and much-loved Barbara Arens has recently added two new titles to her Breitkopf & Hārtel catalogue, which already includes One Hand Piano, 21 Amazingly Easy Pieces and Piano Misterioso.
I will look at the double-barrelled Piano Tranquillo/Vivace later in the review, but first let’s take a look at the latest edition to the series, the marvellous Piano Exotico…
Piano Exotico – 28 Dream Journeys
Piano Exotico – 28 Dream Journeys arrives in a vivid colour with this striking cover image:
Introducing the collection, the composer writes:
“The Germans have an expression: Fernweh. It describes the unutterable longing that sometimes overcomes us for travelling – at least in the imagination! – into the farthest corners of the world – as far as possible from our all too well-known daily rounds. That is what Piano Exotico is about.
The pieces encourage us as pianists to wander in our imagination through various exotic spots. But whereas the famous painter Paul Gauguin had to save every centime for years in order to fulfil his dream of visiting the islands of the South Seas, we can simply enjoy the cinema of our minds – and these pieces provide the perfect film music!”
And wander we certainly do, through jungles and deserts, from the steppes of Central Asia to the mountains of South America, across the seas and along the Silk Road.
You can listen to all 28 pieces for yourself (as can the intermediate players and students journeying through the collection) by downloading MP3 recordings from the Breitkopf website here, or by listening to the composer’s recordings on YouTube:
I really enjoyed playing through this collection, as always with Barbara Arens’ work, and was hugely impressed by the range of expression and variety here. Many of the pieces explore the full range of the piano, and explore tonal and colourific effects that will undoubtedly fuel players’ imaginations.
Rhythmic tropes and exotic modes are as welcome as they are inevitable, and Barbara’s skill as a composer is such that she uses these devices to inspire her own distinctly-flavoured music, never descending into mere pastiche. As Barbara Arens again writes:
“It has been my good fortune to have lived in and travelled through many of these exotic places. This enabled me to give these musical impressions a certain amount of authenticity.”
Even when the music sounds impressively difficult – as at the end of the deliciously evocative Le Tigre for example – Barbara so organises the notes that they lie simply under the hands, making the music easily within the reach of a Grade 3 player. The whole collection would suit players from around Grades 2-4.
The book itself is beautifully produced, with excellent engraving as always from this publisher, and ample fingering suggestions.
Piano Exotico is a rare treat indeed, taking players on a brilliant and colourful adventure. It is perhaps Barbara Arens’ best work yet – don’t miss it!
Piano Tranquillo / Vivace
Meanwhile, Piano Tranquillo / Vivace also retains the style and look established by the previous books in the series. However, the novelty here is that Barbara has produced, in effect, two brand new collections of pieces published back-to-back.
The first, Piano Tranquillo, includes “15 Relaxing Pieces”. With titles such as (brilliant pun ahead…) Piano Peace, Dreamy and Time to Relax, the artistic intentions are clear, and I am sure these pieces will quickly appeal.
However, at Page 26 we arrive at the book’s staples, and a blank page containing the stark warning “End of Piano Tranquillo”.
Turn the book upside down, starting from the back, and a second book reveals its considerable charms: Piano Vivace, “15 Sunny Pieces”. Here we find the wonderfully titled Lemon Sherbet Rag, Rush Hour, Off the Wall and 12 others.
While the two-books-in-one concept is undeniably a bit of a gimmick, it is no less an enjoyably charming one. And while in her previous books Barbara showed great creativity in observing a single idea from many angles, on this occasion the juxtaposition of two moods adds considerably to the value of the publication.
Taken as a whole then, this is another admirably varied album, and I am naturally drawn to the yin-yang aspect of the contrasts it offers.
Barbara explains in her Preface:
“Sometimes my students arrive for their piano lesson and are SO stressed out! School, work, or life in general has left them exhausted, with no energy or will to work on their Beethoven or Kabalevsky. Then we plunge into a calming piano piece – and it works wonders!
But then again we all have days when we’re absolutely bursting with energy and the joy of living – and it’s so invigorating to immerse yourself in a really lively piece! That’s what this rather unusual book is for – to allow you to “chill” or to energize. Both sides begin with very easy pieces and progress in difficulty.”
The “easy” pieces are around UK Grade 1 in standard (and OH! How I would LOVE to see these pieces included in a future syllabus – ABRSM, please take note!) and the hardest pieces are about Grade 3-4 in my view.
Barbara’s comment suggests that these pieces might be used judiciously as quick studies within the lesson rather than as a collection that students work through more systematically – and it’s an idea I find really appealing, and which fits well with my teaching ethos of recognising the place of piano playing within the wider lifestyle of each student.
As with Barbara’s previous collections from Breitkopf, there is a free MP3 download of all the pieces (without purchase) available from the publisher’s website here. So why not have a listen right away?
And once again, the composer has also provided a YouTube playlist of her own performances here (starting with Piano Vivace):
The book itself lives up to the high standards of the series – this is every bit as classy as one would expect from such a high-end publishing house.
And with 30 brand new, uniformly excellent pieces, more than twice the number found in some contemporary collections, Piano Tranquillo / Vivace is great value and an enticing proposition.
Overall, I am hugely impressed with Piano Tranquillo / Vivace and would be interested to see the concept developed further in future back-to-back publications.
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