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The distant, deserted sea

If all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, except for one collection, “my vote should be cast for Chopin's preludes,” American music critic Henry Finck once wrote.

Along with Sergei Rachmaninoff's Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor, Sydney-based pianist Paul Cheung will perform Polish composer and 19th century virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin's complete preludes in Gisborne next month.

“I like the emotion that changes so much from prelude to prelude,” says Cheung.

Composed in A major, Prelude 7 evoked for Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot “sensational memories (that) float like perfume through my mind”.

“The F-sharp minor piece that follows is really fiery and passionate,” says Cheung.

(Corot: “The snow falls, the wind screams, and the storm rages; yet in my sad heart, the tempest is the worst to behold.”)

Along with his achievements as a pianist, in 2012 Cheung was awarded a Bachelor of Science in advanced mathematics, with first class honours and the university medal, majoring in pure maths. So, as a musician and mathematician, does he see or hear mathematical patterns in the preludes?

“Usually not in Chopin, or Rachmaninoff, but some 20th century composers, and avant garde composers like John Cage, have actively tried to use mathematics.”

The progression of Chopin's preludes, however, follow a map of keys known as the Circle of Fifths. The Guide hasn't got it's head around this touchstone for chord progressions, but apparently a musician can compose a piece in any key just by looking at the chart.

“Chopin's preludes are written in a key sequence,” says Cheung.

“He moves in a Circle of Fifths. It helps to make the pieces relate to each other.”

For example, the prelude in A major is adjacent to F-sharp minor in the relative minor inner circle. The agitato prelude in C major (feverish anticipation of loved ones — Corot) is followed by a lento (slow) prelude in A minor (painful meditation; the distant, deserted sea) which is adjacent to C major in the relative major outer circle.

“The way Chopin uses patterns isn't complex,” says Cheung.

“But the music is complex. In a lot of his preludes, he uses repeated patterns but they are different in harmonies and melodies. For example, the first prelude is about 30 bars long and almost each one is the same in rhythm and texture as the second prelude but the harmonies keep changing.”

Individually, the preludes seem like pieces in their own right, writes Jeffrey Kresky in A Reader's Guide to the Chopin Preludes. “But each works best along with the others, and in the intended order . . . As we note or sense at the start of each piece, the various connections to and changes from the previous one, we then feel free to involve ourselves — as listeners, as players, as commentators.”

Chopin was influenced by Italian opera of the time so many of his melodies are “singable”, says Cheung.

“The reason people like Chopin is because you can hum the melody.

“Rachmaninoff was born 60 years after Chopin but by that time, Chopin's music had become the staple of the people. To earn a living, Rachmaninoff did many tours. One piece he performed was Chopin's funeral march.”

The funeral march, one of Chopin's most popular compositions, is the third movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor.

“Rachmaninoff wrote his own sonata in B-flat as a homage to Chopin's work. Melodies in the first and third movements are very dramatic and not easy to sing and more fragmented and not like Chopin and not at all like opera.”

Rachmaninoff began working on his second piano sonata after moving his family to Rome. When both his daughters contracted typhoid fever, he moved the family to Berlin. When the girls were well enough, Rachmaninoff travelled with his family back to his Ivanovka country estate, where he finished the second piano sonata. Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor premiered in Kursk in 1913.

Cheung started keyboard lessons as a four or five-year-old when his parents hoped it would cure his lack of coordination at school.

“They thought they would give me something to do with my hands. It was fun. I enjoyed it when I was young and I still enjoy it. I do a lot of accompaniment work and because I sight-read quite often, I can approximate a new piece.

“The hard work is to make it really precise and that takes hours of practice.”

Practice is a combination of going over details in the composition again and again, and playing the complete piece “to get the emotion and the texture”.

“That's enjoyable because I can commit to the story. It's nice then, playing for myself. It makes me do something different from what I do performing. I can get inspired by the accidents sometimes.”

The Tiromoana Summer Concert series presents Paul Cheung, Tiromoana, 41 Winifred Street, Sunday, February 9. Tickets: $25. Children and students free. Reservations essential: Gillian Armstrong: 021 170 7641 or gillco@gisborne.net.nz

MUSICIAN AND MATHEMATICIAN: Sydney-based pianist Paul Cheung will perform the complete Chopin preludes and a major work by Rachmaninoff at arts patron Professor Jack Richards' Wainui home next month. Picture supplied