Masterful Chopin and Master-Class Beethoven

The classical music label Deutsche Grammophon – Decca found a very 21st-century way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth—they had a video contest. Pianists were invited to send in videos of their Chopin performances. The winner was Yizheng He, a 2010 Duke graduate. His performance of Chopin’s B-flat minor Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 1 was recorded in Baldwin Hall in a solo recital he presented during his senior year.

In an email, Yizheng described himself as a late starter. “When I was eleven, a family friend gave us a really old, out-of-tune piano, so my parents decided to start piano lessons for me.” He didn’t get serious about the instrument until he went to Philips Exeter Academy for his last two years of high school. The late start, he says, “instilled in me a sense of having to catch up.” At Duke he studied piano with Pei-Fen Liu and continued the two-hour-a-day practice regimen he’d started in high school. Two hours a day is not that much by conservatory standards, but it’s quite a lot when you’re a double major in biology and math.

The lessons and practice have clearly paid off. Pianist Alice Sara Ott, the contest judge, wrote that “only someone with real technical virtuosity can bring off this piece with such purity, so free from any rhythmic indulgence. I was impressed and moved by the simplicity and integrity of his playing.”

On a Thursday afternoon about a year ago, Yizheng was in Baldwin Hall playing a much fiercer piece—Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 111—for a small but intimidating audience. It was the master class given by Awadagin Pratt, who was in town to open Duke Performances’ 2009-10 Piano Recital Series (a month later he was playing the White House). Pratt proved to be an outstanding teacher, full of insight, intensity, and good humor as three students took their turn at the piano.

Both the quality of Pratt’s teaching and his deep commitment to the music he plays comes through loud and clear in this video of him working with Yizheng. It also shows how demanding this music is. Yizheng can play the notes and yet Pratt is far from satisfied. When he stops Yizheng’s playing to coach, it’s to point out the way those notes are supposed to be articulated and the way the phrases are supposed to be shaped—there are myriad details, and the piece isn’t really ready until they sound organic and effortless.

After Yizheng played the first movement without interruption, Pratt leafed through the score counting the sforzandi—a musical marking that signals strong emphasis. As the video begins he’s explaining that each one of them “demands a particular burst of energy.” You get to a certain passage in sixteenth notes, where Beethoven expects you to hammer out a sforzando on every beat, and “you kind of want to be done already.”

At the beginning of the second excerpt in the video (0:40) the issue is the staccato marking on a descending passage. A few bars further on, Pratt stops the music again to discuss one of those running passages where Beethoven “is not kind at all.” Pratt wants more emphasis on each beat as well as a crescendo, but the challenge is compounded by a counterintuitive detail—the very highest note is not supposed to be emphasized. This turns out to be a problem with the printed music Yizheng had been using.

The focus in the last segment (1:53) is a rich, evocative passage. The left hand churns while the right hand hammers out a slow, steady rhythm that’s broken by a syncopation, and then the mood softens. Just as it’s natural to crescendo to the top of a rising passage, it’s natural to slow down when driving intensity gives way to quiet lyricism. But the tempo has to be steady for the syncopation to have its full dramatic effect, and Yizheng is slowing down too soon. He takes another run at it and this time, at about 3:16 in the video, Pratt acts out the drama as Yizheng plays, bringing his fist down on each sforzando emphasis, vocalizing “Ahh!” in the rhythmic vacuum created by the syncopation, and then leaning in to conduct, in an energetic, full-body effort to keep Yizheng from slowing down.

A few bars later, when it really is time to slow down, Beethoven heightens the effect with a fluid arabesque and that raises yet another issue—Yizheng has glossed over Beethoven’s very specific notation. What’s true throughout the movement is doubly true of this passage, where the difference between playing the notes and making the music is one detail piled on another.

Chopin’s Nocturne is not unkind to the pianist like Beethoven’s Op. 111. It’s plenty challenging and full of musical details, though, and Yizheng has them firmly in hand. This is especially noticeable at about 1:20 in Yizheng’s video, when the singing, symmetrical phrasing of the main theme gives way to a middle section that’s more oblique. With the firm, resonant chord at 3:06 the phrases flows easily again. That’s the beginning of an expansive transition back to the main theme, and Yizheng paces it beautifully, giving it all the space it needs. The music gradually fades until a hushed echo finally subsides into the main theme.

Yizheng is still in Durham, working as a research associate in a cognitive neuroscience lab at Duke. There’s more than a hint of neuroscience in the way he talks about preparing for a performance.

I think the key to a good performance is to practice a piece until it becomes automatic because then during the performance, one can allocate one’s conscious and executive resources to listening to the sound and making real-time adjustments.

That may sound awfully clinical, but it’s consistent with Ott’s remarks about his playing. She seems to value “real technical virtuosity” because it allows the performer to focus on the essence of the music. Virtuosity without artistic understanding and commitment is an empty exercise. Fortunately, Yizheng’s “conscious and executive resources” are deeply musical.