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Small Hand Piano is the latest in Barbara Arens’ series of publications from Edition Breitkopf, following on from the successful One Hand Piano, 21 Amazingly Easy Pieces (read my review here), Piano Misterioso (reviewed here), Piano Vivace – Piano Tranquillo and Piano Exotico (all reviewed here).
Small Hand Piano is also (ironically) the largest of these collections, providing 40 Pieces “without octaves”, half of which are original compositions, the rest selected from the existing literature.
I often hear players mention online that their stretch is too small for a lot of the repertoire they would prefer to play, so this publication certainly has the potential to be something of a crowd-pleaser.
Let’s take a look and see how well it succeeds in fulfilling this useful aim…
According to Barbara Arens in her Preface to the book:
“Many people who play the piano, adults as well as children, have small hands. Playing octaves and big chords can be difficult, painful – or simply impossible…”
It can certainly prove challenging for piano teachers to find playable yet engaging, motivating, fun literature for their small-handed students. One such teacher asked Arens to write some pieces for her small-handed pupils – and the idea for Small Hand Piano was born.
Arens went on to compose 20 original pieces, and tells us that,
“…others were selected from mountains of literature, a task I thoroughly enjoyed! The use of a single octave in a piece sufficed to have it thrown aside.”
In some cases, Arens specially arranged pieces for the collection, and a few pieces were even transcribed by her from 18th century manuscripts and first editions.
Arens’ goal was to produce a collection that ranges in difficulty from late elementary to advanced level, with music that is as varied in character and style as possible. I would describe the collection as predominantly “intermediate” but with a couple of challenge and consolidation pieces thrown in.
Among the better-known classical pieces, the collection includes Satie’s Gnossienne No.3 and the 2nd Menuett from Bach’s French Suite in C minor.
But Arens is to be complimented for concentrating on efforts to revive lesser-known pieces; these not only underline her encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature, but certainly deserve an ongoing place in the repertoire. Music by Kirchner, Majkapar, Rebikow, Pejačevič and Cimarosa finds a welcoming home within the collection, and many of these pieces are absolute gems.
Highlights for me include the delicious harmonic twists of Ludvig Schytte’s Unter dem Lindenbaum (Under the Linden Tree), Heller’s Barcarolle (so redolent of Schubert), and Kozeluch’s rather doleful Siciliano.
Still less expected, but very welcome indeed, Barbra Streisand’s Lost inside of You from A Star is Born and Howard Shore’s Many Meetings – Foundations of Stone – The Ring Goes South from The Lord of the Rings are sensitively arranged by Arens, adding a contemporary flavour that is further underlined, of course, by the original Arens compositions.
These are as varied and appealing as one would expect, given Arens’ knack for consistently hitting the spot in her music.
In easier pieces, such as the opening Fanfare and following Dark Blues, Arens uses contemporary harmonies to bring a fresh twist to pieces which could, in lesser hands, have lacked individuality. Similarly in later pieces Arens uses time signature changes (in the lovely Pemberley) and shifts in mood to create music that is imaginative and interesting to play.
Ever engaging, Arens’ pieces are ultimately the stars of the show, confirming her again as a composer with a considerable gift and intelligence.
It is also great to see music by another contemporary composer whose educational music I have praised here before; Alison Mathews contributes Fleeting Memories, an enjoyably elegiac piece with folk-song undertones.
Small Hand Piano maintains the look and feel of previous Edition Breitkopf publications of Arens’ music, with this memorably eye-catching cover:
The 40 pieces (ranging in length from 1 to 6 pages) are presented with nicely-spaced engraving, spread across 84 cream pages. Many of the pieces include footnotes with helpful suggestions for performance, interpretation, and even improvisation.
As with Arens’ other Breitkopf publications, fingering is abundant, and appears in a larger than usual font size. This perhaps provides extra support for those players who have physically small hands, although when it comes to chords Arens is more circumspect, writing in the Preface:
“In the case of chords I was hesitant to write fingerings – I know from my small-handed students that some prefer using 1 2 4, some insist on 1 3 5 – so I’ll leave the choice to you!”
Each of Barbara Arens’ books for Breitkopf have filled a unique niche, and Small Hand Piano is no exception. That there is a demand for such a book is beyond question, and Arens has admirably identified and inspiringly met that need.
While there is much intermediate piano music which is accessible to players with smaller hands, this publication offers a uniquely focused selection, mostly unavailable elsewhere, consistently suited to the smaller hand and genuinely rewarding to play.
Small Hand Piano is thus a very easy recommendation for those who struggle with larger stretches and chords, providing an engaging panoply of satisfying music which demonstrates that players of all sizes can make great music at the piano.
For those of us with slightly larger hands, too, this is simply a great collection of music!
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