Reviews


Piano Explorer - Stephen Baron

Music to motivate beginners Piano teachers are always on the lookout for new and inspiring music for their students, especially those at the earliest stages when establishing a solid foundation is of vital importance. Yet truly stimulating material can at times be a little thin on the ground. Which makes Pauline Hall's hugely successful Piano Time series, which has just been completely revised and updated, and Stephen Baron's Piano Explorer so warmly welcome.

From the outset, Baron's Piano Explorer series takes the young pianist (approximately Grade 1-3) into a world of musical discovery. Interesting both rhythmically and harmonically, the challenging pieces in the series (you need a confident youngster to play some of the trickier pieces in Book 1, for instance) offer an early insight into pianistic techniques from pedals and crossing of hands to unusual time signatures and harmonics. These books will most definitely, as the blurb states, 'awaken the ear and incite the musical curiosity of every beginner'.
Tim Stein
Pianist, October-November 2004

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Stephen Baron is Head of Piano at the 'Colourstrings Centre' in North London, where he is in charge of a group of piano teachers being trained in this interesting system of education which includes musicianship classes in the Kodaly principles prior to, then parallel with, instrumental teaching.

Baron's four Books of original piano music include 26 solo pieces for beginners covering black keys, jazz idioms, whole-tone scales, a further 14 pieces with pairs in each of the modes, 10 Duets and six Trios for Six Hands as well as the novelty of a Duet Piano Concerto. Each book is earmarked for the use of piano beginners but, in reality, the range extends to about Grade 3 level. Baron certainly knows how to exploit the instrument and enlist pupils' enthusiasm with this stimulating collection of solos and ensembles which covers so many aspects of piano technique as well as developing aural awareness - the children learning to listen to their partners in the 'multipiano' repertoire. A most interesting and original collection, highly recommended to teachers in search of exceptional piano teaching material.
Piano Journal, Summer 2004

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John York skims the cream off the top of a very full barrel
'Far too much new and reissued material this time - I can only really dip in and point to the best whilst steering readers away from the worst. The very best, suitably for this months issue, is all in the pedagogic field and comes from Faber Music, Boosey and Hawkes and Nymet Music, all of these houses strong advocates of resourceful, entertaining and productive teaching material...'

Nymet Music next - not yet one of those names that come to mind immediately but well worth investigating. Being smaller means their product gets less hype and costs more - that's only to be expected - but I'd recommend you check out Stephen Baron's series entitled Piano Explorer, four sets priced (vols one and three) £6.50 and (vols two and four) £4.99 - solo pieces, 4-hand duets, 6-hand trios, even a miniature concerto for the younger player, up to about grade three. All manner of contemporary thinking here, modal harmony, pedal effects, dissonance, melody, patterns, folk-song - a well-nigh limitless resource that should be tried out by teachers and pupils. It sets a standard to which other, bigger houses should aspire!'.
Piano, May/June 2004

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We featured one of Stephen Baron's duets in Piano Professional last year and Nymet has now published four books of similarly inventive pieces by him in the Piano Explorer series. Baron resolutely avoids the 'thumbs on middle C' approach, instead exploring the full range of the piano, using clapping, harmonics, uneven rhythms, pedalling, crossing of hands and various modes and styles to produce creative and attractive works for children (around Grades 1 - 3). The first two books contain solos, with the second using all the modes; book three consists of duets and trios, with melodic interest well distributed between all players and the fourth is an original 'duet piano concerto', cheekily attributed to Antonio Vivaldi Baron ... These books will encourage a more adventurous approach to both physical and creative aspects of piano-playing.
Pamela Lidiard, Piano Professional, September 2004

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Four Songs - John Byrt
Continuing the theme of song cycles, two new-ish works by the Devon-based composer John Byrt have recently been issued by a small local publisher, Nymet Music, and are worth looking at by sopranos searching for new repertoire. The first, Four Songs (1994), is for mezzo soprano and sets texts by women poets - Byrt specifically states that he wanted to get away from women having to sing men's songs, or worse, having to sing women's songs with texts by men. The result is an enjoyable cycle told entirely from a woman's point of view, the women in question being An Collins, Charlotte Lennox and Christina Rosetti, whose individual voices ring candid and true across the centuries. Byrt's music is tonal, sometimes simple, often tuneful, never superficial - Mathias and Britten, perhaps, would be his closest equivalents. The cycle is also effectively structured, with the longest, most narrative setting placed last.
Matthew Greenall, The Singer, August/September 2005

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Songs of the Earth - John Byrt
Songs of the Earth, again for mezzo soprano, is subtitled Four Songs from the Vegetable Garden and, as might be anticipated, takes a more grounded view of life - though it does include in Margaret Toms' 'Unfair to Slugs' a rare song of sympathy for that most unlovely of molluscs.
Matthew Greenall, The Singer, August/September 2005

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St Magnus Variations - John Byrt
I feel it is vital that we all support the smaller publishing houses which risk printing new music that avoids the easy-listening, formulaic watered-down-jazz idiom of much of what is on the market. John Byrt is primarily known for his choral music and conducting, and that background can be glimpsed here in his variations for piano duet on a 12th century Latin Hymn to St Magnus. There are eight variations and a finale; the individual parts are not complicated, although Byrt does have fun with changing metre and juxtaposing different moods. Probably more useful for older students who could basically read this easily (ie around grade 7).
Pamela Lidiard, Piano Professional, September 2005

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Pickers and Stealers - John Byrt
Pickers and Stealers ... is more useful as teaching material. Three short character pieces, early intermediate level: the first practices triads, the second is a 'Black-Note Serenade' and the third a Habanera.
Pamela Lidiard, Piano Professional, September 2005

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Variations on Puccini's 'Che gelida manina' - John Byrt
Seven rather witty variations... with a touch of 'Mi chiamano Mimi'. Again the strong mood contrasts and a refreshingly contemporary yet accessible approach, both in the music itself and in the writing for piano..
Pamela Lidiard, Piano Professional, September 2005

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Up and Away in a Magic Balloon - Betty Naughton

Betty Naughton's Up and Away in a Magic Balloon was a first-prize winner in the EPTA UK Composers Competition last year. Nine short pieces for students either side of Grade 1. These eschew middle C position, are imaginative in their use of the keyboard and their descriptive writing is bound to appeal.
Piano Professional, September 2005

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Characters in Tune - Betty Naughton

A slim but noteworthy book came from Nymet Music. Betty Naughton's Characters in Tune offers, at only £5.50, five substantial and attractive pieces, each of which encourages good technical skills while inviting an awareness of character and interpretation. There's more to this than you'll ever find in those scrappy, old UMP and Pärt left-overs.
John York Piano , May/June 2007

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Time Pieces - Ira-Paul Schwarz
Piano Professional April 2004
It was interesting that the three classical contemporary works the magazine was sent all refer to other music; a current trend perhaps? In Time Pieces by Ira-Paul Schwarz, we find Big Ben in 'Tempus fugit', a suspicion of Grieg in '2x3' and everything from Bach to Joplin, via Beethoven and Brahms, in 'Pastime'. This suite of six pieces varies in difficulty (Grades 6 - 8) and style, but the overall mood is light and easy-going.

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Music for a While - Neville Bower
Piano Journal Spring 2003
'At last, a suite of pieces - each effective enough on its own but even better presented as a whole - which incorporates all the chromatic/ harmonic advances of the century immediately past in pursuit of a genuinely musical objective and with the help of an unerring sense of neo classical form. Having said this, we would still fall short of justice if we didn't single out for celebration, too, the exquisitely pianistic nature of each of these finely-crafted pieces. They offer an ideal way to teachers and pianists in general for tuning the ear to the harmonic language of our time and for making the transition to the more uncompromising contemporary repertoire.

'Musing' provides a gentle start to the proceedings - a song without words where the crotchet-quaver rhythms are not always a match for the composer's fastidious ear which has rather to call on his metrical organisation to impart interest as in the march, 'Parade', which follows in a quirky alternation of common and duple time. The third is a slow-moving Chorale which gives free rein to the composer's rich harmonic sense although not to be compared, even so, with the closing Chorale II in 5/4 time - a study in bell-like sonorities - which has something almost Coplandesque about its acerbically transparent harmonies and whose three closing chords, after a mighty peal of bells, is meant to evoke, so the composer tells us, the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral. The two Chorales frame a virtuoso 'Spree', all the more climactic for its sheer length and in being the only piece to be marked Vivo amidst otherwise predominantly slow tempi. For such an accomplished composer, it comes as a surprise to me at not having encountered his name before.'
M.T.

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Tunes - Henry Hardy
'..'an impressive range of musical talent, a sense of fun and an ability to evoke poignant emotions ... there are certainly some pieces ... that deserve to be more widely heard'
Christopher Schenk

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