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Creating my Second Album Part 1: Choosing and Preparing Repertoire

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Many people I’ve talked to in the past year have been quite curious as to what goes into making a classical piano album. So, I thought I would share my behind-the-scenes experience of creating a self-funded album from the initial concept to the final product. Note: This process may be different if you’re recording for a label and not self-funding your own project like I did.

Notebook with list of pieces written inside. it's sitting on a table with a wool sweater, a plant, and a cup of coffee.

Choosing my repertoire I knew I wanted to create an album with an underlying theme to justify why the pieces were chosen. I initially didn’t have any theme ideas so I turned to my repertoire list of pieces I had already played for inspiration. In my list I noticed several pieces that were named or nicknamed with a water theme, including Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15: “Raindrop”, and Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie. This became my starting point. From there I did a Google search for “water-themed piano pieces” and came across several other pianists who had already recorded water-themed albums and took inspiration from some of their chosen repertoire. To finalize my water-themed repertoire selection, I chose three pieces from my repertoire list, three pieces from already-recorded albums, and two Canadian pieces that I found in the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) piano syllabus. My final selection was:

  • The Seasons, Op. 37a, No. 6: “June” - Barcarolle by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

  • Années de Pèlerinages, Suisse IV: Au bord d’une source by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

  • Prelude Book 1: No. 10: La cathédrale engloutie by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

  • Jeux d’eau by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)

  • Rivers I (1st set) by Ann Southam (1937 – 2010) *

  • Rain Tree Sketch II by Tōru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996)

  • Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15: “Raindrop” by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

  • Reflections in the Water by Vincent Chee-Yung Ho (b. 1975) *

* Canadian repertoire

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) The Seasons, Op. 37a, No. 6: “June” - Barcarolle This piece really shows off the lyrical capabilities of the piano. In the first section the right hand showcases a vocal-like melody supported by a consistent left-hand chord pattern with the occasional insertion of an accompanying response when the melodic phrase ends. The middle section is joyous as it’s filled with chords that alternate between the hands and culminates in a series of fast ascending arpeggiated chords. The beginning melodies are heard once again in the final section with a few alterations to keep the listener’s attention.

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) Années de Pèlerinages, Suisse IV: Au bord d’une source Au bord d’une source is a piece I’ve wanted to play since hearing it performed in a concert when I was a teenager. The composition captivates the playfulness of water at the source of a spring because of its constant changing content. It opens with a theme featuring the left hand crossing over and under the right hand and though it features some dissonant intervals, they are hardly noticed because of the speed that it is played at. This theme is not particularly vocal, but is jumpy in range as it resembles the splashing of water. A fast cadenza with rapidly ascending notes follows this main theme and then a brief moment of silence. The main theme gets slightly expanded for a second time with another cadenza, this time exploring the large range of the keyboard. The piece then builds to a climax with the main theme heard yet again but with even more chords and virtuosity. It slowly calms down, and the main theme appears in similar character to the beginning. I really admired the creativity of Liszt to embellish a theme in so many different ways to ensure that the listener is still captivated by it each time.

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) Prelude Book 1: No. 10: La cathédrale engloutie This piece opens with soft distant-sounding, bell-like chords that resemble a medieval chant and depict the imagery of a submerged cathedral. As the piece continues various bell-like sounds become louder and louder resembling the cathedral getting closer to the surface of the water. Once the cathedral has emerged completely the pianist gets to explore the loudest volumes of the piano. The cathedral then descends into the water and echoes of past chords are heard. It is interesting, however, that Debussy placed the title of this piece at the end of the score instead of above the first line of music. I personally think that knowing the imagery that the composer is trying to portray helps to understand the piece better.

Picture of the music at the end of La Cathedrale Engloutie
The last chords of Debussy's piece

Ann Southam (1937 – 2010) Rivers I (1st set) I was already familiar with the compositional style of Ann Southam’s minimalist works as I had played Remembering Schubert several years ago. Rivers was very similar in character with a repeating note pattern in the right hand with the melody and bassline played by the left hand both over and under the repeated notes respectively. The imagery of a river with a consistent flow is very well portrayed here. For me it was important to showcase a work of a female Canadian because these composers are much lesser known than Europeans.

Picture of Japanese landscape with a pagoda and trees

Tōru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996) Rain Tree Sketch II

With Rain Tree Sketch II being inspired by a Japanese rain tree, when practicing I pictured the moving notes representing the water landing on the leaves and the sustained notes depicting when the rain tree leaves hold onto the water when the rain stops. Though it doesn’t have a tonal centre and features quite a lot of dissonance, Takemitsu is still able to convey a unique and watery atmosphere.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15: “Raindrop” The listener is introduced to a beautiful melody at the beginning with a left hand repeated G#/Ab note underneath it. This repeated note gives this prelude the nickname ‘raindrop’ as many feel that this piece illustrates the buildup and dissipation of a storm. It’s very interesting how this piece begins in a major key with an innocent sounding character and transitions to a minor key with the right hand taking over the raindrop note and the left hand beginning the melody in the lower register with an intensified character. Its returned to the major key near the end of the piece creates such a calming way to finish.

Vincent Chee-Yung Ho (B. 1975) Reflections in the Water Reflections in the Water was one of the most unorthodox pieces I have ever played, but it also intrigued me for that same reason. The request of the composer to stroke the strings inside the piano and play large clusters of notes with my open hand was something I’d never done before. I found this piece on the RCM syllabus and after listening to it, I was captivated by how well Ho created the water image. The amount of freedom that Ho gives the performer to create their own atmosphere was a unique experience. When nearing the completion of learning this piece, I still had several questions regarding the interpretation, the unusual symbols, the tempo at certain places, and the exact dynamic levels. In the last two months before recording I contacted Ho inquiring about my questions. He eagerly responded to my email and gave me several dates and times of his availability to meet over Zoom. In our Zoom call we discussed my list of questions, and I told him I’d send him a preliminary recording of his work integrating his feedback from my questions within the next week. He replied a few days later with comments on my recording, helping me to understand his intentions better. I sent him one final preliminary recording in early September, and he gave me a lot of praise giving me confidence and reassurance for my recording session.

Picture of iPad with a little bit of the music of Reflections displayed. The iPad is sitting on a table with a notebook, a few coins, a pen, and a empty mug.
The opening measures of "Reflections"

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