PIANISM, PART 2
FANTASY IN C MAJOR, D. 760 (WANDERER)
SVIATOSLAV RICHTER, PIANO
PIANISM, part 2
Pianists will know how ludicrous it is to set out a “Pianism 101” outline in just a few paragraphs. But I thought that doing so might be helpful to the many music lovers who are not pianists, but may have an interest in knowing just what the pianists they are listening to are actually doing or attempting to do. There are textbooks, representing a number of points of view, that deal with the art of playing the piano. I will not try to capsulize those here. They are too detailed for the average listener. I just want to lay out a few basics for playing the piano that the non-pianist can understand.
As I mentioned in my previous post, it is the Schubert “Wanderer” Fantasy that is more or less prompting me to do this. This great solo piano work demands great pianism, and the recording that I am featuring played a significant part in my own understanding of pianism. So I thought this would be an apropos time to talk about this. Of course, everything I will say about playing the piano here applies across the board to all piano playing. These things are facets of playing that classical players are more attentive to than players of other kinds of music. I would just say that, in general, the more attentive a pianist is to all of this, the better, regardless of what kind of music one is playing.
So, in a nutshell…
Most music listeners are aware that the criteria for evaluating a piano performance are often lumped into two categories: MUSICALITY—being expressive, and TECHNIQUE—how well or impressively one adapts the body, arms, wrists, fingers, and feet to actually playing the instrument. From a distant perspective, this separation into categories seems to make sense. But, the closer one gets to actually playing the instrument, one realizes the two are inseparable. One cannot be expressive without having technique. Technique is a means to an end. For every musical (“expressive”) challenge, there is a technical (“how to”) solution.
So, I want to just list a few of the most basic things that pianists are concerned with, always remembering that musicality and technique are the right and the left, the yin and the yang, of playing.
Pianists are always aware of three primary things: legato, phrasing, and balance.
LEGATO. Unlike other instruments—the violin, the trumpet, the oboe, the human voice, and so on—once a sound is produced on the piano—the instant the sound is produced—it begins to decay, to die. The pianist cannot get louder or softer on a note that he has just played—he cannot keep it going in the same way that other instrumentalists can. This is perhaps THE basic difference between the piano and other instruments. Even on the best grand pianos, when a key is depressed and held down, the sound will fade away completely—the string will just stop vibrating—in about thirty seconds, always getting continually softer. This makes it difficult for the pianist to create the illusion that the piano is a singing instrument.
There is some real irony in this because so much of the piano repertoire relies on the pianist to create this very illusion. One of the basic things that pianists attempt to do, therefore, is to play in a legato fashion. Legato means, literally, bound or tied together. Pianists create this kind of touch by overlapping the sound of one note to another—by holding one key until the next key is played. Doing this well is one of the key yardsticks in measuring the quality of this pianist’s playing as compared with that pianist.
Playing legato for most pianists is a learned skill. I would guestimate that if you lined up 1,000 pianists—classical pianists who make their living playing piano—that only a very small fraction of them have a natural legato—they played legato from the time they first played the instrument as children. For everyone else, it is an acquired skill. Some are more successful, and therefore convincing in what they play, than others in acquiring this kind of touch. But good legato playing is definitely a hallmark of good playing. If you are really enjoying a pianist’s performance, the chances are high that she or he has a good legato.
PHRASING. Phrasing is the intentional varying of loudness in a succession of notes. Let’s say a composer has written an opening melody of a piece that consists of nine notes. The most basic “tent figure” phrase would have you starting softly on note #1, making each successive note louder than the one that came before it until note #5, peaking in loudness on note #5, and then gradually receding in loudness until note #9.
It is important to remember that a lot of music—most music, really—consists of one phrase after another.
The continuous shaping of these melodic phrases draws your listener into whatever you are playing. Some liken phrases in music to spoken sentences. I think that is a fair comparison. In the same way that if you were to purposefully speak in a monotone, even your best friend would soon tune you out—would essentially stop listening to whatever you were saying—in that same way, there is an inverse relationship that all pianists are aware of: the LESS we shape our phrases, the MORE bored our audience will be.
A phrasing challenge for the pianist that I already alluded to above has to do, again, with how the sounds of piano strings fade away so quickly. The challenge—in order to convincingly phrase and make it appear to the listener that the piano sings—is to continually listen to sounds you have already played. This is easier said than done. Let’s say I have a phrase consisting of five notes in which the first note lasts longer than the rest of the notes. After I play that first note, my brain says “mission accomplished” and I no longer listen to it—my focus is on what is coming next. But, because the sound of that first long note is dying away, I am very likely to play the second note too loud, creating an unpleasant bump in the phrase. What I need to do is to match the volume of the second note with what is left of the first note. This necessitates my always listening to notes I have already played.
I realize this is a lot of words for a simple concept, but it is a facet of playing that pianists neglect to their own peril.
Just one more small thing to be aware of when listening to pianists—or any musician, really. A pianist can shape a phrase beautifully—can be in absolute control of the dynamic level he is establishing with each successive note—but then ruin it all for his listeners by playing the very last note of the phrase too loudly. Players don’t do this intentionally—it has to do with being in control of your own mind. And by that I mean—as we get to the end of a phrase, the mind instinctively thinks ahead to the first notes of the next phrase, and then the next phrase, etc. What often happens is that, when thinking about the first note of that next phrase, we stop listening to the phrase we are currently ending, and we often end up playing that note louder than we’ve intended. Pianists have to listen to the very last drop of sound, so to speak, of every phrase to make the piano mimic the human voice.
BALANCE. Balance has to with the relative loudness of THIS to THAT. “Balance” is not the most appropriate term, actually. “Balance” infers that there is an equality between things: when we balance things on a scale, the two sides are equal. That is NOT what balance in music is about. “IMbalance” would be the more appropriate word. For the pianist, creating pleasing balances (imbalances…) is paramount to a pleasing performance.
Orchestral conductors are habitually hyper-sensitive about balance—in a way, they are creating, in front of an audience, a balancing ACT in which the strings are now louder than the other sections, followed by the winds projecting the most, followed by the brass, etc. Sometimes everyone is playing full out, but most of the time they are not. The conductor is listening intently to what everyone is doing, and making real-time adjustments, in his hand and arm motions, to all of his players—you play louder here, you play softer there, etc.
The pianist’s hands are his orchestral players. I think probably every music lover is aware that, because so much melodic importance is given to the pianist’s right hand—by virtue of the shorter, higher-pitched strings being to the right on the keyboard—that the right hand in the vast majority of instances is supposed to be louder than the left. To play them equally loud is confusing to an audience—they must choose between hands to decide, at any given moment, what is the most important “thing” going on.
So the pianist has a balance challenge: he is continually adjusting the relative loudness of one hand to the other. This goes against nature! The brain demands, and feels most comfortable with, symmetry. The brain would love it if the pianist always played both hands the same strength, whether loud or soft. But alas, this is not enjoyable for listeners, and so the pianist attempts to always establish a pleasing “im”-balance.
Further complicating things for the player, in terms of balance, is that very often there will be TWO important things going on in the right hand at the same time—a melody and a counter-melody, say. The pianist, then, has to create two different dynamics levels at the same time in the right hand—in order for the listener to differentiate them from each other—while at the same time keeping the left hand always softer than everything that is happening in the right hand.
PEDALING. Entire books have been written about the use of the pedal. I will keep this simple. If you looked inside a piano, you would see that there are things called dampers—small wooden blocks with soft felt underneath them—that rest on top of the strings. When the pianist pushes the right (meaning, on the right) pedal down, all of the dampers rise, allowing all the strings to vibrate. This creates a pleasant effect, one of which is to allow strings to vibrate longer than they would have otherwise. Perhaps the main thing to remember, when listening to pianists and in thinking about what they are doing, is that the pianist’s foot pushes the pedal down AFTER the notes that he wishes to lengthen are actually played. Fingers down, then pedal down.
This is far easier to actually do than to talk about. But – it is yet another dimension of playing that calls for intensely focused listening to oneself. This has to do with the avoidance of overlapped harmonies. Here is what we mean: in a certain measure, if I am playing notes that comprise a D Major harmony, but the notes of the next measure are a different harmony—say, G Major—and if I want to pedal both of these measures, then the timing of my pedaling has to be so exact that NONE of the notes of the D Major harmony “bleed into” the G Major harmony.
All pianists learn, early on in life, that pedaling is something that is done with the ear. One must be intently focused on the sounds one creates, as they are being created, so that one’s pedaling does not overlap this harmony with that. Of all aspects of what is required of the pianist, pedaling is the one I would liken the most to high-wire walking—with the danger being that overlapped harmonies—through sub-par pedaling—can immediately destroy an otherwise fine performance.
OK, I meant to keep this as brief as possible. Hopefully, with these things in mind, you will be able to appreciate that much more this fine performance of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy.
Schubert, you may recall, had one of the briefest lives of the composers that we call “great.” He died when he was 31, in 1828. He wrote the Fantasy in C Major in 1822, when he was in good health. It is a lengthy four-movement work which gets its name (Wanderer) from a song that Schubert had written some years earlier called “Der Wanderer.” In this Fantasy, he uses this theme in each movement—most obviously and poignantly in the second, slow movement.
The text of the song itself describes a wanderer strolling quietly, yet unhappily, as he observes the mountains, a streaming valley, and the roaring sea, always sighing and asking the question “where?”
The four movements of the Fantasy are played without a break—each movement transitions to the next.
I first heard Sviatoslav Richter’s recording of the Wanderer Fantasy during my second year at Juilliard. I remember holding the LP cover in my hands as I listened to it time after time. I was astonished and perplexed.
I was astonished first of all because of the greatness and beauty of the Fantasy, and also because of the variety of emotions it touches on—or plows into, I should say.
And I was perplexed because I could hear that this playing was SO good, but I could not figure out why. (I was still young, you must remember.) It took me many repeated hearings of this performance to discern that Richter was a MASTER of balance between, and within, hands. And I heard, for the first time, what a TRUE crescendo and a TRUE diminuendo were, when every single note—regardless of the length of a passage—is a different dynamic, a different color, than the one that came before and after it. For me, it was a revelation.
There are so many other things I observed that affected my own future pianistic growth. Listening to Richter in this recording gave me a life lesson—one that should already have been obvious to me at age 20. And that is that the VAST majority of my music education would be up to me—listening to music, listening and observing what the great players do, and hopefully, trying my best to replicate whatever that is. This is just the way it is for musicians, regardless of their music preferences.
OK, enough talking. I hope you’ve stayed with me long enough to give this a listen. It is a monumental piece in the hands of a monumental player.
1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 5:40
3rd movement 12:20
4th movement 16:48