Sheet Music Review
With so many great new educational piano music publications on the market, it is becoming easy to miss or overlook some genuinely top-drawer material.
And of the many collections to be published over the last few years, Vitalij Neugasimov’s two books of Piano Sketches are among those that you really DON’T want to miss!
Publishers Oxford University Press (OUP) have now added two new volumes of duets to the series, appropriately titled Piano Sketches Duets 1 and 2 – providing the perfect opportunity to explore the whole series.
OUP do seem to have the midas touch when it comes to selecting sure-fire winners to publish – their many best-sellers include the Nikki Iles Jazz Series, Janet & Alan Bullard’s brilliant Pianoworks, and of course Pauline Hall’s Piano Time range of method books, which despite stiff competition retain the crown as the UK’s favourite piano tutor books.
So let’s see whether the Piano Sketches series compares favourably …
Vitalij Neugasimov was born in 1978 in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he continues to live. After training as a pianist, organist and teacher, he worked at Vilnius choir school Liepaitės from 1999-2012, serving as Head of the Jazz Department between 2001-09.
Since 2005 Vitalij has been a founder member (countertenor) of acappella group ‘Quorum’, performing across Europe and in the USA.
Alongside this he has composed many educational piano pieces in a contemporary style, inspired by his sister Lyudmila Neugasimova, who has more than 20 years piano teaching experience.
The Piano Sketches series brings together his pieces, including those previously available in the Pianoheads Collections 1 and 2, which he first published in 2009/10.
Piano Sketches Books 1 and 2
Piano Sketches Book 1 brings together 18 easy pieces which are around the level of ABRSM Grades 2-3, while the second book is a collection of 14 intermediate solo piano pieces that are approximately Grades 4-5.
And I think that these advertised levels are spot on.
This means that the two books between them offer a lasting selection of pieces to enjoy between Grades, and for a fairly modest outlay.
By the time that Piano Sketches books 1 and 2 were published by OUP in 2016, some of the pieces were already gaining popularity from their first iteration in the Pinheads Collections. In particular, Lullaby (now in Piano Sketches book 1), which had become a firm favourite worldwide as a List B piece in the ABRSM 2015/16 Grade 2 syllabus.
The special joy of Lullaby comes from it’s acutely observed ABBA-esque harmonies, which delighted as much as they surprised me when I first encountered the piece back in 2014.
And if Lullaby provided an exquisite introduction to Neugasimov’s style, it was an equally apt one: his pieces throughout these collections expertly combine astute pop sensibilities, classical tradition and pedagogic insight, offering music which bridges the divide that can sometimes exist between a teacher’s tastes and interests and those of their pupils.
A notable quality which emerges is the composer’s versatility moving from one style of music to the next. Several pieces characterfully convey the qualities of different animals, such as Frog Boogie, The Mouse and the Elephant, Butterfly and Lazy Bear, while others take us on a journey of the imagination: Oriental Dance, Greetings from Cuba, Old Scottish Dance, and Space Wanderer.
Again, many of the pieces seem devised to introduce different musical genres and conventions, such as Let’s Rock, Moody Gigue, Toccata, Country Fiddler, Blue Rondino and Sonatina Polifonica.
Across this impressive range, Neugasimov writes with personality and panache. It is particularly noteworthy that all Neugasimov’s pieces have a fresh contemporary feel to them – they really are a cut above the pastiche and faux-jazz offerings sometimes found elsewhere.
And while we might all choose different favourites from the two books, both collections really are “bang on the money” from cover to cover.
Speaking of the presentation, the books combine all the great qualities that we love about OUP publications – striking cover artwork, clean, spacious music engraving, excellent editing, and judicious fingering.
The Piano Sketches books are, then, something very special indeed. But what about the new Duet publications?
Piano Sketches Duets Books 1 and 2
The two Piano Sketches Duets books roughly correspond in level to the solo piano collections, and helpfully the contents page offers suggested ABRSM Grade levels for the individual Primo and Secondo parts of each piece throughout.
The pieces themselves offer, once again, refreshing variety and contrast, each book featuring a range of appealing and accessible styles.
In the first book, there are “six easy pieces for piano four-hands”, the first three of which include one Grade 2 and one Grade 3 part, while the remaining 3 comprise two equal Grade 3 parts.
This first collection begins with the enjoyably relaxed Raindrops in the Morning and Wind of Spring, before the simple melody of pop ballad Just for You. The evocative High in the Sky is followed by the playful Crazy Clown, and the collection ends with The Glorious Pastime, a grandiose piece with Baroque tinges.
Piano Sketches Duets Book 2 meanwhile offers “five easy to intermediate pieces for piano four-hands”. The suggested Grade levels of these are 3+3, 3+4, two 4+5 pieces and finally a 5+5 piece. The differentiation provided by the 11 pieces is useful and adds to the flexibility that the series offers, especially bearing in mind that parts can in any case be used to either challenge or consolidate musical learning.
The first piece is a brilliant Tarantella, in which the sense of ensemble and timing between the two players will certainly be put to the test. Russian Song has a more soulful folk-inspired melody, with rippling accompaniment from the Secondo player, while Music for a Silent Film takes it’s cue from jazz, with a mid-tempo swing groove.This is followed by the achingly evocative Autumn in Paris, and the collection finishes with the lively Rumba for Johann, according to the composer a Bach-pastiche in a Latin style.
With these pieces Neugasimov proves that the brilliance of the original collections was not a one-hit “flash in the pan”, but that he is an educational composer of enduring ability and integrity.
The balance of interest between the two players is maintained in all the pieces, and they come as a breath of fresh air to reinvigorate the duet repertoire at intermediate level. It is also worth noting here that the pieces from both collections would make ideal ensemble options at GCSE level, filling a space where there is often particular demand.
The books themselves are once again, as expected, cleanly presented and superbly crafted, matching the style of the solo piano collections. Fingering is again ample and helpful throughout, and the notation exceptionally crisp.
And there’s an added bonus – OUP have put up a companion website featuring audio files of each part, enabling players to listen to a demonstration recording of their own part, and then play back the recording of their duet partner’s part while playing along.
In the case of the pieces with faster tempi, they have also included slowed down versions for practise purposes – and there are complete performance tracks of four of the Duets, enabling all who are interested in the book to have a listen before buying.
Overall, then, my verdict is clear – OUP have another winner on their hands!
Piano Sketches and Piano Sketches Duets between them provide a rich and varied selection of contemporary music that intermediate students will very likely find appealing and fun to play, while developing sound technical skills, a more alert sense of style, and in the case of the Duets books, enjoyment playing with others.
I sing the praises of many excellent publications in my reviews on this site, but even with a studio of more than 60 regular students it isn’t always possible to adopt so many new publications as regular studio repertoire.
Piano Sketches, however, is already establishing itself as a firm studio favourite, with enthusiastic responses from both younger players and adult students alike. What more can any teacher hope for?
Visit OUP’s companion website with audio tracks for the Duet book here. There’s some sample Duet pages too…