Brahms - Waltz in Ab Op 39 No 15
The Brahms Waltz in A flat, no 15 from Opus 39 is set for the Grade 6 ABRSM piano exam 2013 - 2014.
This waltz is probably one of the best known of Brahms' piano pieces and is almost certainly the most popular of the Opus 39 collection, originally written for piano duet but later arranged by the composer for solo piano.
The mood of this waltz is sweet, gentle and flowing, characterised at the start by a singing, major key melody accompanied by arpeggiated LH chords.
Here is a sweeping, dance-like interpretation:
Pupil Match & Suitability
This is a piece that feel good to play as the chords lie logically under the fingers and the arpeggiated notes give a lovely flow to the sense of movement.
Its character will appeal to a wide range of students and those who can handle chordal textures with a sensitive and musically balanced sound will be successful in performing it.
Students may like to explore other waltzes by Brahms after learning this piece. Number 3 of the same set is lovely - and unjustly less well-known than number 15. You may listen to an extract here.
Style & Tempo
There is no definitive tempo for a waltz - the pace varies according to musical context. The waltz is a 3-time, ballroom dance however, so the chosen tempo must give a feel for the dance-like sense of movement.
In this waltz, crotchet around 100bpm will give a light-hearted character without being too quick for the challenge of the triplet quavers in bars 29 - 34.
A slightly slower tempo, as heard here, can work too as long as the playing is expressive and beautifully phrased.
Phrasing & Articulation
The overall effect of the RH melody line will be mainly legato, but with very lightly detached articulation where slurred / staccato articulation is shown.
The LH, at the start, will ideally ripple and float off the chords in a graceful movement - there should be no abruptness of staccato, but rather a subtle, lightly detached elegance.
The top line of the melody will need to be brought out clearly in the latter part of the piece, where the RH has sixths, as heard here.
Tone & Texture
The opening section, referred to again later in the piece, is quiet; nevertheless the melody line must sing out, so we could interpret the relative dynamics as: melody mp, bass notes p and inner chords pp.
Many students greatly underestimate just how much emphasis the melody line needs. The thick-textured chords in bars 9 - 14 and similar will be further enhanced in tone by use of the sustaining pedal so great sensitivity will be required in balancing the sound to favour the melody lines.
Sensitive, careful pedalling will need to be in place, or be developed for this piece - see the section on pedalling for guidance.
The grace notes in bars 3, 17 and 31 should be played before the beat. Students can find it difficult to keep these notes even in tone. A little forearm rotation is involved in managing the grace notes with ease. Keeping the hand stretched and working just the fingers will most probably result in unevenness caused by tension, so let the hand return to a normal hand shape after the first chord of the bar. Feeling the sensation of touch of finger 4 on the D can actually help to make the sound even.
There is no definitive way to pedal any piece but the following suggestions are offered:
Either pedal the LH chords separately in the first section, or pedal twice per bar on the first and third beats. For greater buoyancy and clarity, do not legato-pedal between beats 3 and 1. Omitting to use any pedal in deference to the LH staccato markings here will not give a stylistic interpretation.
Bars 9 - 14 (and Bars 22 - 28) may be legato pedalled once per bar if the melody line is brought out effectively.
In bars 15 - 22 sustain the bass notes through beat 2, then change the pedal on beat 3.
Bars 29 - 34 might be pedalled in the same way as 15 - 22, but the approach here will depend on the student's ability to play the top line of the RH melody legato.
Some bars may need more or fewer pedal changes, according to the pianist's balance of sound, the piano and the acoustic of the room. Students should, at this level, be encouraged to listen to the effect of the pedal, rather than to adhere to a strict plan.
It might be a good idea to begin with the LH part, since the harmonies form the basis of the music and much of the learning will be centred around achieving fluent, accurate LH chords.
A lesson on how to balance the textures successfully may be needed. To explain how to use arm weight to selectively make the tone stronger for the top notes of RH chords, you could ask the student to rest two or three fingers of the RH on their left arm, allowing more of the weight of the right arm to go onto finger 5 - this represents the melody note of the chord.
The teacher's priority, once the piece is known, is to give the student feedback on the balance of the chords and melody, to help with shaping the phrasing and with creating the right, expressive mood.
The LH part should be absolutely secure, otherwise attention will be taken away from the RH balance and flow, so plenty of memorisation practice of the LH will pay dividends later, even if the piece is to be performed using the score.
Playing the LH whilst singing the RH melody makes extra LH practice more enjoyable, as well as making it easier eventually to co-ordinate the RH with the arpeggiated LH part. LH practice ought to include practising judging the leaps between bass note and chord, without looking intently at the hand each time, but instead using a light sense of touch, taking the hand right down to the key and playing with a generous amount of finger 5, rather than landing just on the tip of the finger.
The final section will certainly need the most practice because of the sixths in the RH, where a natural hand shape will help to keep a balanced tone - let the arm move in alignment with the hand rather than allowing the hand to bend at an awkward angle from the arm. If this proves difficult in bars 32 - 34 because of the tied notes, the lowest F could be released so that a small hand can reach the high F more comfortably.
The best performances of this piece will show a high degree of tone control and textural balance, with a gentle feel for the light and lyrical waltz. The phrasing will be shaped by graded dynamics and also defined by use of rubato.
Pedalling will enhance the tone and will also help provide some changes in mood, between elegant lightness and sweeping smoothness. The final section will be both delicate and poised, with control of evenness always maintained.
Here's one of the best interpretations, by Stephen Kovacevich.