ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

Sheet Music Review

The launch of ABRSM’s biennial piano syllabus is always a significant event in the piano education world: particularly in the UK and Far East, where the exam board’s offerings remain hugely popular and influence much of what is taught.

For their 2021-22 syllabus ABRSM are heralding several structural changes:

  • A new Initial Grade, providing a pre-Grade 1 assessment that follows the same structure, content and marking criteria as their other graded music exams 
  • Completely revised repertoire lists and scales requirements
  • A revised list structure, with lists defined by musical characteristics rather than period of composition
  • More choice and variety of repertoire (30 pieces per grade)
  • A duet option from Initial Grade to Grade 3
  • A one-year overlap period, with the 2019 & 2020 syllabus valid until 31 December 2021.

I will review the new Scales & Arpeggios syllabus and supporting publications separately within the next few days.

ABRSM have also announced a “remote” alternative to their Practical Grades, which you can read about here. Although dubbed Performance Grades this is somewhat a misnomer; unlike the Practical Grades, where candidates must face performing live to an examiner, these new assessments take the form of a submitted recording of four pieces, including three from the Grade syllabus.

This Review

With a whopping 270 pieces included in the new syllabus, including 81 published in ABRSM’s nine Piano Exam Pieces books, even the most in-depth review can’t cover every piece, and as always I recommend readers download the full syllabus lists from ABRSM’s own site.

However, as in previous years I will look at particular trends within the syllabus, the direction of travel, highlighting those general features which will interest teachers and players alike.

I will bookend the review with a more detailed look at two specific grades: Initial and Grade 8, representing the start and end points of a student’s journey through these assessments, and in which the broader changes in the syllabus are writ large.

And finally, I will offer a personal list of some of the highlights selected from each Grade in turn.

So let’s jump in…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

Garreth Broke: Healing, and beyond…

Sheet Music Review

Garreth Brooke is a talented English composer currently living and working in Germany. In addition to contributing guest posts here on Pianodao he has previously shared his inspiring story here, and talked to me about his excellent Upright Editions initiative in an interview here.

In this review, it’s my pleasure to review three recent publications of Garreth’s music, two of which appear under his alias Garreth Broke: Healing and Dance, both published by Editions Musica Ferrum, and thirdly Solo Piano: Selected Pieces, which Garreth has self-published via Amazon.

These publications have all appeared within the last year, but Garreth has been publishing recordings of his music on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and elsewhere for several years, gaining an appreciative audience drawn to the new-classical style and emotive qualities of his writing and playing.

Continue reading Garreth Broke: Healing, and beyond…

Denis Matsuev: Three 20th Century Concerti

Recording of the Month

This month it’s a pleasure to be shining the spotlight on a concerto recording for the first time on Pianodao: to be precise, DG’s new disc of concertante works by Shostakovich, Schnittke and Lutosławski, brought to us by Deutsche Grammophon and performed stunningly by Denis Matsuev (piano) and the Kammerorchester Wein-Berlin.


The three works included in this outstanding recording are all very much of their epoch, but rooted firmly in musical language and conventions that make them accessible to any classical music lover.

They are:

  1. Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto No.1 for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra Op.35 (1933)
  2. Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)
  3. Witold Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941)

Let’s take it for a spin…

Continue reading Denis Matsuev: Three 20th Century Concerti

Relax with Meditative Piano

Sheet Music Review

When Schott Music delivered their gorgeously presented Relax with Beautiful Piano Music series of five books back in 2016, I concluded my review:

“What excites me is that these books so brilliantly meet the demand expressed by so many of my teenage and adult students for beautiful music that can be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake.”

Is it really four years? Well, I am happy to report that during that time several of my adult students have been using these marvellous collections, and without exception absolutely loving the selections of music they contain.

In most cases, having bought one book they have rushed to buy others in the series without prompting, an obvious indication of enthusiasm, and interestingly the Baroque and Classical books have proven particularly popular.

Happily for all, Schott Music are back with an encore, a sixth book again selected by British concert pianist Samantha Ward. With the title Relax with Meditative Piano, it promises to be another winning selection of great music. So come on, let’s see what’s in it…

Continue reading Relax with Meditative Piano

Evgeny Kissin: Four Pieces Op.1

photo: G. Henle Verlag

Sheet Music Review

Evgeny Kissin hardly needs any introduction to readers of Pianodao: one of the leading pianists of his generation, Kissin’s stunning performances and recordings have wowed audiences worldwide.

Now he joins that highest echelon of the great pianist-composers by bringing the world his first solo piano compositions.

Kissin’s Four Piano Pieces Opus 1 were published by G. Henle Verlag late last year, joined by his Cello Sonata Op.2 and String Quartet Op.3.

And yes, this is the first time that Henle have committed to publishing the work of a living composer. Picking our jaws up from the floor, let’s find out more…

Continue reading Evgeny Kissin: Four Pieces Op.1

Adapting to Change

Change sometimes takes us by surprise, a bolt from the blue, and in the early months of 2020 we have all experienced a jolt to our way of life as countries around the world quickly followed each other into lockdown.

As the dust settles and we try to adapt to “the new normal”, many are now wondering how these changes will continue to affect us, and what they mean. We are feeling uneasy about the future, and unsure of our footing.

Here in the West, we sometimes assume change is a linear process, an ongoing narrative in which we continually face the unknown, but with no going back. We measure our success in terms of our annual growth targets, believing that unless we progress “onwards and upwards” we will fail.

For the Daoists however, change is cyclical, often understood in the natural context of the turning seasons and the rotation of day and night. There is similarly a natural expansion and contraction of all things, seen for example in the ebbing of the tides, the wax and waning of the moon.

I believe that these metaphors are really helpful; they can give us hope. They encourage us to accept life’s “ups and downs”, pliably and positively adapting to them. In contrast to western materialism, Daoism teaches that there is a rightful time to contract, consolidate, and rest: all of which are necessary for our well-being.

In this context, there really is no “new normal” because we are all on a continuing journey. Nothing in the universe stands still. But at the same time, it certainly seems that history has a peculiar habit of repeating itself. Fixed plans and linear growth targets only succeed when all else is essentially in a state of entropy, but this is historically rare and actually a bit weird.

The upheaval of 2020 presents us with a unique opportunity to reflect on this. How then can we “go with the flow”, “roll with the punches”, and adapt to change?

In this article I will consider this question primarily from the point of view of a pianist and teacher, but beyond my thoughts on how to adapt our playing and teaching, there is much here that equally pertains to our living.

Continue reading Adapting to Change

Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: Wiener Urtext

Sheet Music Review

In the conclusion to my recent review of Bärenreiter’s recently published Jonathan Del Mar edition of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, I noted,

“With the appearance of Jonathan Del Mar’s new benchmark edition for Bärenreiter, we have less of an excuse than ever when it comes to understanding and interpreting the master’s intentions… This magnificent resource is surely not only a new landmark in Beethoven scholarship, but for pianists its issue is the publishing event of the decade.”

In the light of such high praise, eyebrows might be raised at the spectacle of me now reviewing an alternative edition. However, it’s only fair to admit that however definitive an edition is (and the Del Mar edition is as definitive as they come), there is still space for more than one edition of these masterpieces on our shelves.

Given the complexity of establishing an exact text of these core works, and the performance considerations they raise, I certainly welcome the option of having a couple of editions to consult, especially if they offer complementary strengths and insights.

Also last year, and with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth clearly in sight, Wiener Urtext released their own fully updated and revised urtext edition of the Sonatas in three volumes, UT 50427/8/9.

Without detracting from my enthusiasm for the Del Mar edition in any way at all, there are good reasons why some players might welcome the strengths offered by the Wiener Urtext editions, or even prefer them; this review will focus on explaining what I think those are…

Continue reading Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: Wiener Urtext

Phillip Keveren’s Circles

Sheet Music Review

American composer and arranger Phillip Keveren’s books have become increasingly popular staples in my studio, his recent collection Piano Calm (reviewed here) establishing itself as a particular favourite.

Keveren’s latest publication, brought to us as ever by Hal Leonard, is Circles: Character Etudes in 24 Keys, once again a collection of brand new original pieces aimed at intermediate pianists.

And it’s another triumph…

Continue reading Phillip Keveren’s Circles

Andrew Higgins: Seasons

Sheet Music Review

From time to time I review a music book here which subsequently establishes itself as a favourite with my students; such a book was the brilliant Birds: Études-Tableaux composed by Andrew Higgins, which I reviewed here.

I was therefore naturally pleased to receive Higgins’ latest collection, Seasons, which is again published by the forward-looking publisher EVC Music, whose many recent useful and eye-catching publications have made such a positive mark on the pedagogic repertoire in recent years.

Rather than lazily giving us more of the same, Seasons is quite a different proposition from Higgins’ last book, so let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading Andrew Higgins: Seasons

Víkingur Ólafsson: Debussy meets Rameau

photography: Ari Magg

Recording of the Month

For a second month in a row, my piano recording of the month choice comes from the fingers of a young player whose playing I did not immediately warm to, but who has more recently completely won me over.

Víkingur Ólafsson’s DG debut recording focused on the music of Philip Glass, while for his award-winning follow-up he turned to Bach, mixing the composer’s originals with transcriptions and various reworkings. The Icelandic pianist proved his mettle with an ultra-crystalline approach and technique that dazzled critics and music-lovers alike; but it left me just a little cold.

Ólafsson’s latest offering, bringing together a joyous collection of pieces by the French baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) interspersed and offset with an eclectic set of beloved and lesser-known pieces by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), is the clincher.

A disc replete with musical marvels, Ólafsson’s album of French keyboard wizardry is revelatory in its insights and deserves the highest plaudits…

Continue reading Víkingur Ólafsson: Debussy meets Rameau

Gradebusters: 15 Awesome Solos

Sheet Music Review

Grade exams getting you down?
Who are you going to call?…

GRADEBUSTERS!!

Gradebusters is the cheekily-titled new series from Hal Leonard. Serving up a rich feast of universally popular music that players everywhere will be hungry to play each book is packed with instantly recognisable hits and infectious tunes. The series so far includes books for piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, alto and tenor sax, nominally ‘Grade 1’ level.

The Gradebusters grade 1 piano book includes “15 awesome solos from ABBA to Aladdin”, and is available now. Grades 2 and 3 follow over the next few months.

Here’s a quick rundown of the resource, the music included, and some ideas about who this book would suit…

Continue reading Gradebusters: 15 Awesome Solos

The Pianist’s Self-Care

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

At the time of writing, most of us are feeling uneasy. We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic, concerned for ourselves, our loved ones, our finances, and fearful of what our world might be like in a few months time.

But as we spend more time away from our usual routines, we might also discover a deeper unease. A rock has plunged into the pool of our lives. The ripples are still clearing, and a lot of mud has been churned up. As the waters settle again, we are coming to see things that were perhaps unclear to us before.

As pianists we might hope to see glimpses of answers to life’s most profound questions sat before our piano, absorbed in our playing. And certainly, as I’ve written here before, piano playing can provide a sanctuary from all else that is unfolding around us.

But while some presently find they can use their piano playing as an escape from grim news, many others are experiencing frustration at their lack of motivation, focus and inspiration.

In this entry to The Pianist’s Reflections Series I will consider some basic elements of self-care from a Daoist (Taoist) perspective in the hope that readers will find some helpful suggestions, and that each of us can enjoy a piano journey that reflects an easier, more connected and settled experience of life.

Continue reading The Pianist’s Self-Care

Penelope Roskell’s ‘Complete Pianist’

Building a Library

Without question, Penelope Roskell’s The Complete Pianist is the most monumental publication yet to arrive for review, and with 560 large format pages, 250 newly-devised exercises and more than 300 supporting online videos, I can well believe that it’s the most comprehensive book ever written on piano playing, as well as the most superbly presented.


Striking among the claims made for the book, we are told that Roskell’s approach is based not only on a lifetime’s experience of teaching and performing, but also on “ground-breaking research into healthy piano playing”

The Complete Pianist thus offers the reader an…

“… innovative approach to piano technique based on the use of natural, ergonomic movement which achieves a rich range of sounds, allows greater artistic freedom, and helps to prevent injury.”

Intrigued? I bet! So let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading Penelope Roskell’s ‘Complete Pianist’

Agnieszka Lasko’s ‘Little Stories’

Sheet Music Review

Once in a while a music book comes my way which quite simply “blows me away”, and such a book is Little Stories, a new collection of 16 late elementary pieces by Polish composer Agnieszka Lasko, published by Euterpe and distributed by Universal Edition.

With it’s truly lush illustrations and presentation of Lasko’s highly original and attractive compositions, the book is a natural winner. The inclusion in several pieces of opportunities for children to improvise and compose takes the book to another level again, making it a truly essential addition to the childrens’ pedagogic literature.


Let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading Agnieszka Lasko’s ‘Little Stories’

The Faber Music Jazz Anthology

Sheet Music Review

Over the last three years, Faber Music seemed to establish a pattern of releasing deluxe Piano Anthologies in the run up to the Christmas season. For 2020, they have ‘upped the ante’ by bringing forward the next title in this stunning series to the Spring, with further anthologies (Contemporary and Easy) already in preparation.

The Faber Music Jazz Piano Anthology builds on the quality of its predecessors to deliver a sumptuous and brilliantly conceived book of jazz standards, newly arranged as piano solos for more advanced students and adult piano enthusiasts everywhere.

Definitely time for a closer look…

Continue reading The Faber Music Jazz Anthology

Federico Colli plays Scarlatti

Photography: Benjamin Ealovega

Recording of the Month

As he did for many piano-lovers, Federico Colli first came to my attention when he appeared as a finalist at the Leeds International Piano Competition, which he went on to win in 2012. Since then he has established a successful performing career and has an exclusive recording deal with the Chandos label.

I have to confess that in 2012, Colli was not my favourite to win; nor was I enamoured with his Bach recording when I caught up with it last year.

However, seeing glowing reviews for his second CD of Scarlatti Sonatas elsewhere I took the plunge. And how glad I am, because it is stunning! I am finally a belated convert to Colli’s cause!


So what makes this recording special? Let’s find out…

Continue reading Federico Colli plays Scarlatti

Schott Music’s Mini Maestros

Sheet Music Review

Those looking for good anthologies of easy piano music are fairly spoilt for choice these days.

Latest to arrive (on the same day as ABRSM’s rather disappointing Core Classics series reviewed here), a set of three new books from Schott Music, compiled by the ever-prolific Hans-Günter Heumann, and collectively titled: Mini Maestro.

With each of the three books containing 50 solo pieces and 3 bonus duets, Mini Maestro certainly offers great value and plenty to dig into, so let’s take a look…

Continue reading Schott Music’s Mini Maestros

Listening through the lens

Building a Library

Listening through the lens is the recently published memoir of BAFTA-award winning documentary-maker Christopher Nupen, who has made more than 70 productions on classical music and musicians.

Nupen’s pioneering portrait-films count among their subjects Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pré, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, Andrés Segovia, Alice Herz-Sommer, Yevgeny Kissin and Daniil Trifonov, many of whom have become lifelong friends.

His 1969 film The Trout, featuring Barenboim, Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré and Zubin Mehta performing the beloved Schubert quintet, is legendary; while We Want the Light has won some of the most prized awards in documentary making.

In his book, Nupen tells the story of his varied and often astonishing life…

Continue reading Listening through the lens

Adriano Cirillo: Deux Valses

Sheet Music Review

Edition HH is one of the few independent boutique publishers whose releases consistently impress, with an enterprising and eclectic catalogue that ranges from Baroque and Classical rediscoveries to contemporary compositions.

Among the latter, Edition HH publishes the work of Italian composer Adriano Cirillo, born in 1951 in Bari. Cirillo studied with acclaimed composer Nino Rota, who is perhaps best known for his scores to movies such as The Glass Mountain and The Godfather, but who also composed ten operas and a significant body of concert works.

Rota’s influence is palpable in Cirillo’s hugely enjoyable Duex Valses, freshly published by Edition HH and the subject of this short review…

Continue reading Adriano Cirillo: Deux Valses

Pam Wedgwood: Piano Meditations

Sheet Music Review

Following on from her previous collections of original pieces inspired by works of art Piano Gallery (reviewed here) and Piano Seascapes (reviewed here), Piano Meditations is the latest from best-selling composer Pam Wedgwood, brought to us as ever by publishers Faber Music.

Here we have 12 brand new compositions which are, according to their composer, “inspired by contemplative works of art, and once again the publication includes a gorgeous full colour pull-out poster featuring images of all the paintings which served as Pam’s muse.

Intermediate players who enjoyed the previous collections, along with Wedgwood’s many fans, will undoubtedly already be rushing to their music supplier for a copy; for the benefit of those wanting more information, let’s take a quick look…

Continue reading Pam Wedgwood: Piano Meditations