“Easy” collections of the core classical piano repertoire abound, but few bring to the table the depth of scholarship, reliable editing, fingering and expert advice found in the recent (and ongoing) “Urtext Primo” series.
As the latest collection in the series – featuring the music of Clementi, Czerny and Cramer – hits the shelves of music stores worldwide, let’s take a look …
What is the “Primo” Series?
Launched in 2012, and presently standing at six volumes, Urtext Primo is a series of collections published by revered music publisher Wiener Urtext Edition.
Each volume contains around 30 pieces suitable for intermediate to early advanced players, with musically and technically varied repertoire within a “narrow band of complexity”, and a suggestion that the book would last a player around two years within their development.
Three composers are featured per volume, and in most cases two of the core writers of the keyboard repertoire are joined by a third, lesser known composer.
Each volume includes high quality urtext scores of the pieces, together with a teaching and learning commentary. This appears in German/English or French/English versions, and includes short biographical sketches of the three featured composers, followed by in-depth advice about teaching, learning and practising the pieces.
This advice takes the form of an essay with paragraphs covering issues such as historical keyboard instruments, dance forms and genres, tempo, dynamics, pedalling, fingering, touch and articulation. The advice given regarding ornamentation and embellishment is particularly excellent, including reference to ornament tables of the times.
While these practice and teaching tips don’t cover each individual piece in detail, they are no less valuable, and for the player or teacher who is uncertain about appropriate performing practices and conventions, they are worth the price of admission in their own right. Hats off to Nils Franke for a brilliant job here!
Those familiar with previous releases in the series may want to skip ahead to find out about the latest addition, featuring Clementi, Czerny and Cramer. For the rest, I think it worth a quick look at the previous volumes in this excellent series …
1: J.S. Bach, Handel & Scarlatti
The inaugural volume in the series features three blockbusting Baroque composers, all born in 1685. All three were celebrated keyboard players in their day, and as composers contributed hugely to both the virtuoso concert repertoire and the nascent domestic and educational market.
Bach is represented by the best-known of his Little Preludes, excerpts from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, three dance movements from his Suites, the famous C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier and Two-Part Inventions Nos.1 (in C ) and 8 (in F major).
The Handel miniatures may be less familiar, but are equally charming and effective, sparkling keyboard pieces. The expected preludes and dance movements are nicely contrasted with the inclusion of the famous Sarabande in D minor.
Eight Sonate movements by Domenico Scarlatti complete the collection, and are among the easiest of his works, offering an enjoyable introduction to his style.
2: Haydn, Mozart, & Cimarosa
It’s easy to forget how vast and magnificent Haydn’s contribution to the piano repertoire is, and at all levels. Here he is represented by several easy miniatures, Sonata movements, and the glorious Adagio in F Hob.XVII:9 (my recording of which is here).
The pieces that the six-year-old Mozart wrote in his London Sketch Book are as glorious as they are inspiring: I well remember the impact they had on my as a child, leading not only to my first piano lessons, but also to my earliest attempts at composing! It’s wonderful to see some of them here, joined by the slow movement from the famous K545 Sonata, and a couple of later miniatures.
Domenico Cimarosa is the “wild-card” addition in this collection, establishing the series pattern of including a lesser-known composer alongside two giants. Born in 1749 in Naples, Cimarosa distinguished himself as one of the leading opera composers of his day, but also composed almost 90 keyboard sonatas. Editor Nils Franke notes that the latest of these “are in close stylistic proximity to Mozart’s dramatic musical language”, though those included here equally reminded me of the keyboard writing and textures of Scarlatti, forming something of a bridge between these two masters.
3: Beethoven, Schubert & Hummel
Jumping to the next generation of composers, the third volume opens with one of Beethoven’s German Dances before presenting the composer’s two famous Sonatinas. Three of the best-known Bagatelles then lead to the ubiquitous Für Elise.
The selection of miniatures by Schubert is as charming as expected, with three of his Minuets followed by Ländler, Ecossaisen and a couple of more challenging Waltzer. Giving some idea of the difficulty range for this book – and the series in general – the most difficult piece here is the Scherzo in B, D593/1, which appears in the recently published 2019-20 ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) is another composer whose huge and varied keyboard output is still far too overlooked.
His Six Pièces très facile Op.52 open the selection here, and prove an interesting and varied suite suitable for the player at around Grade 3-4. Also included, the Allegretto in F and Allegretto in C are charming pieces, while the Tyrolienne variée and Variations on a theme by Vogler present the greatest challenges, again at around Grade 6.
4: Schumann, Brahms & Kirchner
Moving to the Romantic Era, the fourth collection starts with enough excerpts from Schumann’s Album for the Young to keep most happy, followed by the opening movement and beloved Träumerie from Kinderszenen.
Brahms, you say? In an intermediate collection? For those who love the music of the towering German composer of the later nineteenth century, it’s a welcome joy that he produced simplified versions of his famous Waltzes Op.39, eight of which are included here alongside the less-known Sarabande in A minor.
Happily, nearly half of this collection is given over to the lovely music of Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903). Kirchner’s name will be recognised by most piano teachers, although many of the pieces here are likely to be fresh discoveries for most.
A significant amount of the composer’s energy went into educational writing, and it’s particularly welcome that so many of his pieces here include obvious pedagogic strengths. All-in-all, this is a collection that will keep intermediate players busy and interested for some time!
5: Chopin, Liszt & Hiller
It is perhaps a measure of Chopin’s evergreen popularity that all his easier pieces are so widely familiar.
Present and (Urtext) correct here, the Preludes in E minor, B minor, A major and C minor. Likewise the Waltz in A minor, the Cantabile in B, Sostenuto in E flat and three well-known Mazurkas. It’s a pitch-perfect, if rather inevitable selection.
Liszt, like Brahms, is not a composer that players tend to encounter before reaching an advanced level, so Wiener Urtext and Nils Franke have done a particularly fine service in bringing together 12 too-rarely-played easier pieces by the great virtuoso. All but a couple sit at the top end of difficulty in the Urtext Primo series, around grades 5-7.
Though technically “easy”, these pieces, like all Liszt miniatures, capture the unique and intense poetry of his extraordinary musical personality. It would be fine, indeed, to see them become more widely known.
The included music of Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885) – who was somewhat a disciple of Schumann – rounds out this survey of mid-nineteenth century piano music nicely. Again, many of these pieces will be fresh discoveries, although the Polish Song has recently been a popular ABRSM Grade 3 exam choice. It’s great to discover the piece nestling between companion Irish, Italian, Scottish and Russian songs, and a hugely enjoyable Spanish Fandango.
6: Clementi, Czerny & Cramer
This brings us to the latest issue in the series, and a step back in time to the late Classical, early Romantic period previously visited in volume 3.
Clementi (1752-1832) gets a somewhat cursory inclusion here, with the ubiquitous Sonatinas Op.36 numbers 1 and 2 included in full, along with a Präludium und Arietta, a Tarantella and Rondo.
Carl Czerny (1791-1857), meanwhile, is represented by a far more hefty 17 pieces, which range considerably in style, difficulty and inspiration – but which prove him to be a more interesting composer than he is sometimes credited. Though rarely departing from a simple harmonic framework, the pieces have melodic charm and imagination, combined with strong pedagogic content.
A comparable revelation is found in the case of Johann Baptist Cramer’s (1771-1858) music here, which includes character pieces, variations, and a couple of brilliant and unreservedly showy Etüdes.
In common with all the books in the series, the music straddles a range of difficulty from around Grade 3 to 6, with the occasional piece (in this case the Clementi Sonatinas) a little easier.
Taken as a whole the Urtext Primo series offers a significant body of traditional classical and pedagogic piano music.
Though perhaps not really geared for younger learners, the series delivers a brilliant package for the teenage and adult music-lover with intermediate to advanced skills who wishes to dig deep into the great keyboard repertoire of the Baroque to Romantic eras.
For teachers, too, these volumes offer superb source-books for a wider range of this great piano music than is typically explored. I know that I will personally be digging into these pieces, and using the books with teenage and older students.
The detailed and authoritative editing, spot-on fingering and excellent engraving all help to make these publications stand out from the crowd, and the brilliant section of performance notes and tips at the back of each book confirm the whole series as an essential purchase for all who are involved in piano education.
It is confirmed that the series will continue, and personally I would love to see it edge towards and broach the early-twentieth century next (how about Grieg, Sibelius & Nielsen? …or, Prokofiev, Kabalevsky & Rebikov?) – although copyright restrictions may make this a more distant reality.
In the meantime, don’t hesitate in buying these first six superb books in the Urtext Primo series.
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