Classical review: Blair pianists premiere Richard Danielpour’s ‘Twelve Etudes’

“I started writing these etudes in November of 2011, and I finished them in February 2012,” said the composer Richard Danielpour on Tuesday night at Ingram Hall. “That’s just four months, but in a sense these etudes have been 20 years in the making.”

danielpour-profileDanielpour, one of America’s preeminent classical composers, was at the Blair School of Music for the world premiere of his Twelve Etudes for Piano. Blair commissioned the new works, which received stellar performances Tuesday courtesy of pianists Mark Wait, Craig Nies and Amy Dorfman.

Pianists have been preoccupied with concert etudes – works designed to develop and enhance a player’s technique – since the 19th century. Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Brahms all made important contributions to this pyrotechnical genre. In the 20th century, composers like Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Ligeti carried on the tradition.

Etudes, by their very nature, are often extremely difficult to play. As Debussy once said of his own etudes, they are intended “to strike fear into the fingers.” But that’s not the case in the Danielpour etudes. “These aren’t really virtuoso etudes,” said the composer in his short, pre-performance chat. “They are more like studies in what the piano can do.”

That’s not to say the Danielpour etudes are easy. His studies in big, left-hand strides, octaves and fast repeated notes all required vertiginous fingerwork. Still, at the end of the recital, one had the sense that Danielpour was more interested in color and texture than in razzle and dazzle.

waitWait played the opening set of four etudes. Unlike Chopin’s famous opening C-major etude, which features right-hand arpeggios that race up and down the full length of the keyboard, Danielpour’s first etude seems technically modest. This study in five-finger arpeggios centers the action almost entirely in the piano’s middle register. Danielpour seems more concerned with polished, expressive playing than in flashiness.

In the second piece, Danielpour shows that the piano can be both a percussion and string instrument. This work is dedicated to pianist Gary Graffman, the former Curtis Institute of Music president who lost effective use of his right hand in the late 1970s. This etude calls on the pianist to play a tune on the keys with the left hand while the right hand plucks strings inside the piano. Often, the plucking produced a ghostly harpsichord sound.

The third etude was a showcase of big chords played with subtle, expressive nuance, and the fourth was an appealing exercise in legato passage playing. Wait performed all of these works with sensitivity and a deft technique.

craigNies, who played Etudes 5 through 8, said in interviews before the recital that he got the hardest batch of etudes. He wasn’t exaggerating. His opening work, marked “Agitato,” was a difficult octave study that climaxed in a frenzy of double notes. The sixth etude, dedicated to the fabulous Manhattan School of Music pianist and professor Andre-Michel Schub, was a thoughtful and melodic study in (what else?) sixths. The seventh etude, dedicated to Nies, opened with a sort of languid prelude before launching into a wild toccata of repeated notes. Jazz seemed to be the main idea in the eighth etude, which included some impressive, Fats Waller-like left-hand strides. Nies, with his big, flexible hands and exquisite artistry, played all of these knuckle busters with seeming effortlessness.

amyThe difficulties in the Etudes 9 through 12, which were played by Dorfman, often seemed more interpretive than technical. They were also among the most beautiful of the set. The ninth etude was in fact a study in achieving a beautiful “cantabile” sound in the left hand. Etude No. 10, the most difficult of Dorfman’s group, tested the pianist’s ability to play rapid passages across the entire keyboard. Dorfman’s etude was No. 11, an exercise in playing repeated notes with dexterity and spontaneity. Arguably the most expansive and affecting piece of the entire collection was the Etude No. 12, a lyrical exploration of slurred pairs. Dorfman played all of this music with polish, precision and, when necessary, genuine passion.

Tuesday’s recital opened with Danielpour’s Preludes, Book II. Like Debussy’s preludes, Danielpour’s works are miniature tone poems that create vivid images (or impressions) of people, places or things. Highlights included Dorfman’s account of the Prelude No. 2 “Surrounded by Idiots,” a flurry of notes that suggest the hustle and bustle of life in New York City; Wait’s reading of the Prelude No. 4 “Lean Kat Stride,” a challenging stride piece that plays off the name of Danielpour’s wife Kathleen; and Nies’ performance of the Prelude No. 7 “Winter Solstice,” a ravishing song without words.

This was an evening of piano music at its level best. The playing was breathtaking and deeply felt. And the music was beautifully idiomatic for the instrument. My guess is we’ll be hearing a lot more of these etudes in the future, in auditions, recitals and major piano competitions. The Danielpour etudes are keepers, and the Blair School’s deserves credit for commissioning them.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.


  1. I was privileged to attend the performance. John Pitcher’s review is absolutely right on from the listener’s point view. It was a thrilling night. Thank you.