Your Millstone Piece

January 12, 2012 at 04:12 PM · I've just misread the title of the topic "Your Milestone Piece" as "Your Millstone Piece", which set me thinking (as well as suggesting a visit to the optician). How many of us have important pieces which we can never seem to get to grips with in depth, either technically or artistically, or have a well-known piece at our fingertips which we have to play whether we like it or not?

In the second category it wouldn't surprise me if Heifetz might have sometimes felt this when he was asked to play Hora Staccato for the umpteenth time. I also heard on the radio that among the reasons Nigel Kennedy gave for his temporary retirement from the concert platform some years ago was that he hadn't been looking forward to the prospect of performing the Mendelssohn 20 times in the next six months - and finding something new to say each time.


January 12, 2012 at 07:53 PM · From what I know about Heifetz, it's hard to imagine anyone getting him to do anything he didn't want to do.

I read an old interview with Ricci that he was so tired of being asked to play the Mendelssohn and Paganini first, that he would only do so at double his usual fee.

I heard that Rachmanninoff grew sick and tired of playing his own wonderful Prelude in C# minor, and that Bruch got tired of violinists only playing his own first concerto (having written 2 other concertos plus the Scottish Fantasy.)

January 12, 2012 at 08:07 PM · Small wonder Bruch got irritated - he sold the rights to his famous 1st early on!

January 12, 2012 at 08:15 PM · Viotti. Take your pick.

January 12, 2012 at 09:42 PM · Oh Emily, Viotti#22 bugs me too. I want to do vieuxtemps 4 so badly but without a clean viotti, ha, dream on Yixi!

January 12, 2012 at 11:44 PM · In the orchestral repertoire, it would be the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn. The theme is great, but it's all downhill from there, whether I'm in the orchestra or the audience. Actually, I take great pains to not be in the audience; I'm not sure what else on a program could entice me to sit through the Haydn variations.

January 12, 2012 at 11:58 PM · Well, even though I don't think of it as a millstone, I've long had ambivalent feelings about the Mendelssohn e minor concerto. On the one hand, I like the piece for its beauty and changing moods and technical flourishes; but in my student days, I grew tired of hearing so many other students play it in auditions and recitals.

Although I'd gladly pull it off informally in studio -- or out in the garage when the weather warms up again -- I'd rather not have it on a recital program with my name on it.

January 13, 2012 at 12:04 AM · Schubert's Unfinished. Hate the piece. And especially with the old confusion between accents and diminuendos - the standard printed editions seem to get them all wrong, and if you get an idiot on the box who reads them as printed, it becomes even worse dying away all over the place. And finally, those scary pp bits for the first violins.

January 13, 2012 at 12:15 AM · Saint Saens 3rd concerto. I heard it played on a student level a whole bunch of times with someone who played it with a superfast vibrato.

I always feel like there's a swarm of bees coming after me whenever I hear it.

January 13, 2012 at 12:31 AM · We were presented with a nice little problem during our orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday. We're preparing half a dozen pieces for two back-to-back St Patrick's Day concerts in a few weeks time. One of them is "Lullaby" by Gershwin in a string orchestra arrangement by Jeff Manookian (btw, I have no idea what this has to do with St Patrick, but we're also doing Grainger's "Molly on the Shore", so that's all right).

Anyway, in the Gershwin, towards the end everyone has quiet moving passages in stopped harmonics. For the seconds they are all on the D string, and it seems like there are equivalents being played by the other sections. Bearing in mind that few of us have done any serious work on stopped harmonics (and my previous SH work was on the cello, where they're relatively easy using the thumb position), I leave you to imagine the sound emanating from the orchestra on the first run-through.

However, if these stopped harmonics don't come together as the concerts draw nigh I have devised a sneaky alternative Plan B in collaboration with fellow conspirators in the section to save the situation ...

January 13, 2012 at 01:18 AM · My millstone piece so far is #36 in Kayser Op. 20 - an entire etude of octaves. When I practiced it for the first time, I almost cried: I read two lines and my left wrist and fourth finger were already in great pain, and I was terribly out-of-tune! It just seemed so impossible and hopeless for me to ever play it to a satisfactory level. From that day on, I had to practice it as the last item of the day, and only did one line at a time, otherwise I would just want to quit playing altogether! I would think to myself: What's the point of even trying? You are so hopeless! You will never be good! The next lesson, almost in tears, I told my teacher that it was too hard for me, but she thought I was joking. :) She gave me some tips on how to practice it, and said I didn't have to practice it if I did not want to. Then my stubbornness kicked in, and I was determined to master it! It took 11 weeks, but I was able to play the whole thing pretty in tune and without pain in the end. :)

January 13, 2012 at 02:22 AM · I love Viotti #22, and would be glad to perform it one day! I wrote my own cadenza for the 1st mvt.

For annoying variations, for me it's the Dvorak Symphonic Variations on an original theme op.78. I generally like Dvorak - but there's something about that theme that seems so asinine.

January 13, 2012 at 02:26 AM · One day, I'll have to learn Prokofiev's second concerto. I'm really not looking forward to that day.

I really want to play Beethoven's ninth violin sonata, but my teacher says I have to do all of them, in order.. and I'm still on number one.

January 13, 2012 at 03:06 AM · Back in the '70's I studied, among many other things, the Khatchaturian concerto. I never looked at it again - until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to review it. Gosh - what a pain! All that passage work with all those unpredictable intervals and accidentals. Just finsihed going through it today. Maybe I'll look at it again in another 30 years!

January 13, 2012 at 05:08 AM · Raphael - LOL! Thanks for the warning (being at the other end of the rope as it were).

Brian. Oops - I started with the 10. Perhaps you could ask your teacher if I should not work my way down ... And I said started, it looks relatively simple on paper but oh dear...

A true millstone piece I think is one where there is (or more) a passages that you learned wrongly and even though its well within your capability somehow the hard-wired wrongness is just impossible to fix or you just don't want to put in the necessary effort. I nominate Fiocco Allegro - I just could not get that up to speed. I looked at it again yesterday but felt I should rip it out of the anthology its in, to prefent any further reflux....

January 13, 2012 at 05:19 PM · Raphael, I hope you'll record your Viotti #22. If you do, I'll buy more than one CDs of yours. Deal?

January 13, 2012 at 06:10 PM · Any second violin part by Strauss.

Waltz: rest pah pah, rest pah pah, rest pah pah, rest pah pah, ...

March: rest pah rest pah, rest pah rest pah, rest pah rest pah, rest pah rest pah, ...

Or the second part to The Moldau. Great to listen to, icky infinite iteration to play.

Looking back to my childhood, I could not STAND those orchestra pieces in school, like "The Bunny Hops Over The Fence." I wanted MOZART!

January 13, 2012 at 07:10 PM · 1812 Overture.


January 13, 2012 at 09:53 PM · Yixi - it's a deal. Meanwhile I have 2 other CD's!

John - yes, 2nd violin parts to Johann Strauss. I once did a gig of almost all Johann Strauss, and was put in the 2nd section. By the end of the gig I was almost praying for death! Also the 2nd vln. part to Verdi's "Va Pensiero" is pretty miserable, too.

January 13, 2012 at 10:40 PM · Elgar concerto...but orchestras only want Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Brahms!

January 13, 2012 at 11:03 PM · Raphael, I only saw one (The Way You Look Tonight) on your website. Where is the other one? I'll buy them.



January 13, 2012 at 11:31 PM · Trevor here in North America cellists unanimously abhor this piece more than any other:

January 14, 2012 at 12:34 AM · Yeah, I'd put the Pachabel cello part right up there alongside the 2nd violin parts of Strauss waltzes.

Some years ago the prospect of having to play cello in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius for the fourth time in about a dozen years was the deciding reason for me quitting that particular orchestra (there were other reasons).

January 14, 2012 at 12:46 AM · And while I'm in the mood, what about the idiot arrangers (and unthinking conductors) who require a pizzicato cello bass line for the Air in Bach's orchestral Suite in D (that's the notorious Air on the G string – and has anyone here actually had to play it on the G string?)

January 14, 2012 at 02:09 AM · Trevor, you probably heard this cello joke about the Messiah:

Cellist 1: " had a real bad dream the other day,I was playing the Messiah and it went on and on...."

Cellist 2: " you must have been happy you woke up"

Cellist 1: " not really, 'cause when I woke I WAS playing the Messiah".

January 14, 2012 at 12:16 PM · Hi Yixi. I do need to update my website! My 2nd CD is called "Chaconne D'Amour" - named by combining the longest track, the Bach Chaconne (and I include the entire Partita) with the shortest track, the Elgar "Salut D'Amour". It also includes the Brahms A major Sonata, Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise" and the Schumann Romance in A.

January 14, 2012 at 12:19 PM · Trevor, In response to both - I've only had the chance to do Gerontius once or maybe twice in all my time. I think it's a brilliant piece - is the 'cello part so bad? And as for the Bach Air - the original is high up and in D - the "Air on the G string" comes from Wilhelmj's arrangement for violin and piano. Starts on E an octave below the original F.

January 14, 2012 at 05:40 PM · Malcolm, "The Dream" was fantastic for me the first time round (I've played worse cello parts), but with a fourth time looming - no sir! Basically, it's because I've never been all that keen on large-scale choral works. Now a 10-performance run of Gilbert & Sullivan is quite a different matter, especially when I can see the stage and there's an envelope waiting at the end of the run!

January 14, 2012 at 05:50 PM · Hendrik, falling asleep while playing isn't quite unknown. It hasn't happened to me but during a rehearsal (fortunately not a performance) some years ago I noticed that the lady cellist next to me was slumped over her cello and nodding off (you can do that over a cello, but not a violin!). The explanation in this case was simple - she was a hospital surgeon and had come to rehearsal straight from a 24-hour shift in A&E.

January 15, 2012 at 03:21 AM · Wow, I guess that's the difference between me and Kennedy -- now that I am older and the technique isn't an issue, I really cannot imagine tiring of playing such a delightful piece, even to say the same thing every time. I get a little sappy just thinking about it.

I really, really hate the Ride of the Valkyries. Why did he do that to us?

January 15, 2012 at 06:59 AM · I remember about three years ago I was playing the Bach Concerto No.1 in A minor. It took me about nine months to finish the first movement, because I never practiced it. As much as I love Bach, I hate that piece (especially the first movement) with the exception of the second movement, which is actually very nice. But the first movement is so tedious and dry, like an Etude. I remember that instead of practicing my Bach, I would play Czardas instead, good times...:)

Also, the Hyden Concerto No.1 gave me some trouble a while back, especially the Flesch cadenza, which I never could interpret to my teacher's liking no matter what I did. However, I've come to terms with that piece, but not with the Bach!

January 15, 2012 at 07:03 AM · I would also like to add that as far as Orchestral music is concerned, the second violin part to Elgar's Enigma Variations is just sad to play. You get to play only ppp quarter notes, and miss out on all of the action, especially in the "Nimrod" variation where you are constantly under the firsts...

January 17, 2012 at 07:31 AM · I don't know if you've been playing someone's derangement of it, but not in Elgar's version!

In some ways it's harder than the 1st part - it's harder to play some of the similar passages lower down on the instrument. But boring it's not.

January 19, 2012 at 07:59 PM · Nope, we're playing the real thing. I realize that some of the movements are fairly exciting accross the board. But perticularly in Nimrod, which is my favorite variation, you get to play only quarter notes pianissimo until the very end, where you get to play along with the firsts for about five measures. Not very fun.

January 19, 2012 at 08:28 PM · For me it was definitely Vieuxtemps 5. I haven't played it in years but it felt like it took me ages and ages to learn it. I was pressured by my teacher at the time to perform it in a recital and I was not happy with how I played. I don't hate the piece itself but my experience of preparing it felt like a total grind.

January 22, 2012 at 02:30 AM · OH Bruch VC for sure. I'll probably have to play it eventually, but as of yet I can barely listen to it all the way through. I'm sure it has its merits, and with time I could appreciate it more. But for now...

And Mozart No.3, although a beautiful piece, took forever to learn because of the sheer musical perfection required to play it. It was a necessary experience, but I ended up hating the piece after a few months :(

January 22, 2012 at 04:23 AM · Don't worry about Bruch. The fun you will have in the third movement makes it all worth it.

January 22, 2012 at 08:08 AM · Sorry, but how can anyone not like Bruch? Its totally reckless :D Or maybe thats why, I'm a reckless kinda girl...

January 22, 2012 at 01:48 PM · There's a good reason why the Bruch #1 has long been one of the most popular of all violin concertos. The beauty, drama, colorfulness, warmth, etc. etc. are there in every bar of every movement. And the tuttis are glorious too.

Well, as they say in Latin - de gustabus non disputatum est, meaning if you're hit by a gust of wind on a bus you can be de-put off the bus - or something to that effect! ;-)

(It really means that there can be no dispute about taste.)

January 22, 2012 at 03:30 PM · Raphael: you wrote:

"Well, as they say in Latin - de gustabus non disputatum est, meaning if you're hit by a gust of wind on a bus you can be de-put off the bus - or something to that effect! ;-) "

That is so delightful I may memorize it, or write a leider to immortalize it. It also explains why I end up walking a lot... I think...

Verbis defectis musica incipit

January 22, 2012 at 04:13 PM · I second Bolero. The Nutcracker Suite. Bartok Viola Concerto.

January 22, 2012 at 05:51 PM · for me would have to be solo bach...i just dont seem to care for that much. Its not just bach its baroque in general. Im working on Gavotte en Rondaeu for partita 3 and it is my favorite bach piece..but it gets old quickly when i listen to it....

January 23, 2012 at 03:40 PM · On a lesser level, what about the second violin part of the Ostinato in Holst's St Paul's Suite? Especially when we were required in rehearsal today to play both lines in the second violin part due to lack of players.

January 23, 2012 at 03:52 PM · John Coltrane's "Giant Steps", and its developments, like "Countdown" or "Moment's Notice".

Not only fiendishly tricky to improvise over its chords, but very difficult to mak eany music out of it as it has a weak melody, and the thing keeps changing key in the middle of a bar. AND the key changes are either by a major third or a minor sixth, so you don't get a logical bass movement.

I know - keep practising. But I don't like it, either, so I resent spending time on it.

You have to be able to play it, but I have managed to avoid it on almost all the gigs I have done in the last thirty years.

Give me a nice tune, any day.

January 23, 2012 at 03:52 PM · Doubled post

January 23, 2012 at 05:23 PM · As a listener, there's a section near the end of Kodaly's Hary Janos suite that drives me bonkers. It's near the end, when he keeps coming back to the same motive over and over. I haven't played it or seen the the score, but I imagine that it could be written as two short quarter or eighth notes followed by a fermata note.

There may be something in the story that it relates to, but listening to it on its own merits as absolute and not program music - well when I heard it recently on the radio and it repeated for about the 10th time, I just had to switch stations.

January 25, 2012 at 12:17 AM · o.k. - totally off topic.

Hary Janos is famous for the big cimbalom part. I remember a recording that stated how rare these beasts are in the Western world. I live in Belfast, where we had a very rare talent in Derek Bell. Principal oboe and harp in the BBC orchestra, also a brilliant pianist - basically Derek could play ANYTHING at a professional level. He later joined the Chieftains, a traditional Irish group (and when they met the Pope, Derek was dead chuffed that THE picture publicised was with him - the only Prod in the group - music trancends ALL boundaries). I was round at his house for some publicity photos - Derek had 2 of these things in his front room. And yes, he could play them to a professional standard.

January 25, 2012 at 02:49 AM · Interesting. But does anyone know the passage I'm referring to, and why it's repeated ad nauseum? I suspect that it must be some reference to part of the story of Hary Janos. But purely as music - enough of that little passage already!

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