J. Macmillan: A comparison of Suzuki piano recordings

New recordings of the Suzuki piano repertoire have been made by Seizo Azuma, co-chair of the ISA piano committee and a professor of piano at Tokyo University. When his recordings of Books 1, 2 and 3 came out in 2008, I was filled with enthusiasm.
At last, we had recordings that teachers and pupils need and deserve. They addressed virtually all the reservations I expressed about available recordings in my article of 1999: Three recordings of Suzuki piano repertoire books 1 and 2: a comparison. The final sentence in that article was: ‘There seems to me clear scope for a new recording which would need to be technically accurate and musically sensitive to inspire Suzuki pupils’. I feel this has now been achieved. I hope that those who are used to the recordings by Haruko Kataoka (which I find aggressive at times), Valerie Lloyd-Watts (which I find insipid), or William Aide (in which some pieces are a little fast) will enjoy this new recording.

Professor Azuma’s musicianship in his performances of Books 1, 2 and 3 is superb, his playing lively, rhythmical and characterful. The sound quality is excellent, as is the recording quality. But, as we progress through the revised Books 4 to 7, which were brought out in 2010, I become less enamoured with Azuma’s recordings. Although the tone remains good, performances become a little pedantic, heavy, sometimes noisy and too fast. To me, they lack variety, flexibility, intensity, delicacy and magic.

Azuma’s baroque playing is rather solid – pieces such as Bach’s Inventions and the Prelude and Fugue need more variety in the quality of sound. His romantic music could do with more flexibility, shaping of phrases and sense of direction. It lacks subtlety, missing the Spanish spirit of Granados or the French atmosphere of Debussy. However, I did enjoy Azuma’s performances of the classical repertoire. The fast movements are lively and energetic, if sometimes a little on the quick side. His slow movements, particularly that of Mozart K545, demonstrate very sensitive playing – serene and expressive.
Of course, I am setting the bar very high. I listen to recordings of the Suzuki piano repertoire by Angela Hewitt, Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim and other luminaries. Who could possibly hope to perform like these international recitalists?! In any case, at the Book 6 and 7 level, students should be listening to many different performances of each of their pieces, not relying on one performer.

Azuma’s Book 5 recordings are useful adjuncts to further listening to top performers. It is in the early stages of learning that families need superb recordings instantly available, and Azuma’s recordings of Books 1, 2, 3 and 4 certainly provide that – they are exemplary.

Having been dissatisfied with the recordings available prior to Azuma’s, for my pupils I made a number of my own recordings, including elementary pieces played slowly and hands separately (introducing each piece with ‘ready and’) to help pupils in the early stages of learning and so they can listen and play along with them. These are on my website: www.jennymacmillan.co.uk

  Kataoka Aide Lloyd-Watts Azuma
Tone quality Harsh,
forced RH.
Pleasant tone. Shallow tone,
especially in bk 2.
Excellent tone.
Dynamics Good; nice echoes, even when not written in the score. No echoes or
dynamic contrasts until near end of book 2.
Almost no echoes
or dynamic
contrasts.
Narrow dynamic
range, contrasts not clear; no unwritten echoes.
Phrasing Phrases weakly shaped. Monotonous repeated notes in Allegretto 2. Gently shaped phrases. Sensitive
ends of phrases in book 2. Repeated notes lack variety in Allegretto 2.
Good phrasing. No variety in tone of repeated notes in
Allegretto 2.
Gently shaped
phrases. Bridge
passages in Beethoven 1st and 2nd movements
lack flexibility.
Balance
between
hands
Mostly good. Well-
blended LH broken
chords.
Happy Farmer: RH
accompaniment too
strong.
Accompaniment
clearly audible –
useful for studying
LH. Sometimes a
little too strong, eg
Short Story, Happy
Farmer.
 Good.  Excellent.
Legato
between
repeated
notes
Ranging from fairly
good to very good.
Good but not
excellent.
Very poor in book
1, poor in book 2.
 Excellent.
Speeds Mostly good, but
Ecossaise too
slow and Twinkle
Variations and
Minuet 2 rather
fast.
Mostly good if on
the fast side, but
some, especially
early book 2, too
fast, including
Twinkle Variations,
Christmas Day
Secrets, Short Story
and Minuet 2.
 Mostly good if on
the slow side, but
some too slow, eg
Twinkle Variations,
Allegretto 1,
Allegro and
Ecossaise.
 Lively, energetic.
Speeds mostly
excellent, but
Clair de Lune and
Minuet 2 too fast.
Musical
endings
to pieces
Slight slowing
down at ends of
pieces.
Slight slowing
down at ends of
pieces in bk 1.
Good variety of
ritardandi
in bk 2.
Abrupt endings
to pieces in book 1. Only slight
ritardandi
in bk 2.
 Excellent musical
endings.
  Kataoka  Aide  Lloyd-Watts  Azuma
 Rhythm Tendency to play almost 16th-dotted 8th instead of two equal 8th notes in Allegro, all Bach Minuets and Arietta.Happy Farmer: LH first quaver too long. Beethoven 1st movement: grace notes too loud. Accurate. Beethoven 1st movement: acciaccatura played before beat instead of on beat.

 

Accurate. Beethoven 1st movement: acciaccatura played before beat instead of on beat. Very accurate, rhythmical playing.
Articulation Christmas Day Secrets: RH first quaver played staccato instead of given its full length. Beethoven 1st movement: slurs not articulated. Christmas Day Secrets: RH bar 4 last note not played staccato. Inventive articulation in Bach and Mozart Minuets – inappropriate here? Short Story: RH 3rds not played staccato. Short Story: RH 3rds not played staccato.
Beethoven 1st movement slurs not articulated.
 
Rests
Rests omitted in Honeybee, Clair de Lune, Cradle Song and Melody. Previous note held too long in Long, Long Ago, Minuet 1 and Beethoven 2nd movement. Incorrect final bar in Happy Farmer.  Most rests accurate but previous note held slightly too long in Honeybee, G minor Minuet 1 and Cradle Song. Rests reasonably accurate but previous note held too long in Clair de Lune, Minuet 1 and G minor Minuet 1. Inaccurate rests in final bar of Long, Long Ago, Happy Farmer and Melody. Rests excellent except in Minuet 1 in which LH crotchets before rests are held too long.
Twinkle
Variations
RH fast and light with LH accompaniment. Variations 1–3: all about the same speed but too fast at MM82; Variation 2: no dynamic contrast; Twinkle theme: even faster at MM86 but good legato between repeated notes.

RH only. Generally too fast, but speed varies for each variation – Variation 1: MM80; Variation 2: MM72, some dynamic contrast; Variation 3: MM76; Twinkle theme: much too fast at MM92, fairly good legato between repeated notes.

RH and LH two octaves apart. Variations 1–3: slow and ponderous at MM66; Variation 2: no dynamic contrast; Twinkle theme: too fast at MM88, no legato between repeated notes. All variations in RH, then all in LH. Each variation is too fast and at a different speed (c84, 80, 88) but Theme is beautifully legato at an excellent speed of 72; Variation 2: no dynamic contrast p-f-p.
  Kataoka  Aide  Lloyd-Watts  Azuma
Note
accuracy
 Good.  Good.  Clair de Lune: two incorrect LH notes.  Good.
Recording quality  Good. Good. Very clear – every note audible.  Good. Good, though piano action is just audible.
Summary of good points Good dynamics; good balance between hands; good legato between repeated notes; mostly good speeds. Good tone quality; sensitive phrasing; musical endings; mostly good speeds if on the fast side; clear recording quality. Good phrasing; good balance between hands; mostly good speeds if on the slow side.  Excellent tone; excellent balance between hands, excellent legato between repeated notes; excellent musical endings; accurate, rhythmical, lively, energetic playing.
Summary of bad points
Harsh, forced tone; weakly shaped phrases; disturbing uneven quaver rhythm in places; many rests omitted or inaccurate. No dynamic contrasts within pieces; some accompaniments quite strong; some pieces too fast, especially at beginning of book 2; inappropriate articulation in Bach and Mozart.  Shallow tone, especially in book 2; little dynamic contrast; very poor legato between repeated notes; some pieces too slow; abrupt endings; rests not
always accurate; incorrect LH notes in Clair de Lune.
 Dynamic range could be wider and dynamic contrasts clearer; a few pieces too fast; gaps between pieces too long, especially between Beethoven 1st and 2nd movements.

 

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MacmillanJenny Macmillan has a thriving teaching practice in Cambridge and is an ESA piano teacher trainer. Her own three children all learned piano by the Suzuki approach.

Jenny has written extensively about the Suzuki approach and her articles feature on her website:
http://www.jennymacmillan.co.uk/

Jenny Macmillan

She has published a book:
Successful Practising A handbook for pupils, parents and music teachers

Click on image for more information

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3 thoughts on “J. Macmillan: A comparison of Suzuki piano recordings

  1. Catherine Lui

    I do agree with it.
    I got a CD of Burgmuller op.100 from Schirmer. I found Margaret Otwell’s performance on Burgmuller is more lively than Seizo Azuma. So, I will ask students to listen to Margaret’s performance on Burgmuller.

    Reply
  2. Nikki Patton, Massachusetts

    Thanks for posting this!
    I have been wanting to encourage a new series of Suzuki Cello CDs for similar reasons.

    Nikki Patton
    Director and Teacher bei Chappaquoit Cello Studio

    Reply
  3. Cynthia Faisst

    Sometimes I think we are expecting a great deal from any one artist to play near perfect examples of all the Suzuki repertoire.
    The music is intentionally varied as possible for pedagogical reasons and it requires great flexibility on the part of the artist to play them all with expertise and musical endurance.
    I suggest this is true about all of the instrumental methods.

    Imagine asking a voice method to do this. It underscores the need for students to listen to these pieces outside of their method materials.

    Reply

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